All night I sweated like a pork sausage in a condom in an oven in a Caribbean rainy season.
Finally, at 1am, tormented by Cartagena’s heat, I stood under my shower – the water like a boiled kettle atop my skull.
I’ll be tired for class tomorrow I guess. I lay sprawled under my bed with my fan so close it was like a cat purring, curled on my chest. A slight reprieve until my skin dried. Not quite enough to sleep.
Polish journalist and author Ryszard Kapuściński nailed this feeling in his description of Africa:
“I was dripping with sweat, but others, too, were drenched – sweat prevented you from being incinerated on the summer’s blazing pyre.”
I woke in the morning to a small miracle. The sun was not out. I was immediately distrustful…. probably it is still night, my sleepy brain thought.
Deliciously however, it was 6:30am and raining lightly. I stood on the top floor balcony and looked out across my street. This was a nicer street than where I’d been living – it was considered middle class in Cartagena.
The roofs however were corrugated iron sheets and the powerlines linked to the homes in a dizzying entanglement of black against the drizzly sky.
A creek ran perpendicular to my street and was adorned on both banks with garbage. Once I saw an iguana beneath the bridge there. Skin like hard-boiled leather, green and huge and regal.
“Sorry about your home,” I whispered to him. “Humans are stupid.”
You couldn’t really walk alongside the creek alone because you might get robbed. You had to cut through the suburb and then cut back to the creek simply to cross the footbridge over it. There were a couple of elder gents who took turns sitting on the bridge with a collection tin marked ‘bridge security.’ You could pay them a coin for their efforts. They also sold iceblocks, hedging their bets.
Like usual in the tropics, the sun bit off the head of that delicious fresh morning after about 30 minutes, and resumed its ruthless governance of the sky.
The blind dog and I sat together outside for breakfast. The ideal companion while your brain swims sleepily into the consciousness of day is a dog. It will simply greet you warmly and then shut up. Not like those chirpy morning people who sap your energy before you have cultivated it.
I looked around. Mosquitoes were waking from their potplant nests and shouting at each other that a human (AKA breakfast) and a blind dog were stupidly waiting to be molested.
The baby’s pants, like tiny flags of humanity hung in rows above our heads. The avocado vender bellowed his wares through his megaphone, the wooden wheels of his cart pushing through the streets, his brow and lip beaded as always with pearls of sweat.
The coconut palm in my neighbour’s yard waved lazily in a rare breeze and children, those being who wake with the sun, were already shouting in their street baseball match – snatched moments before their mums wetted and brushed their rebellious curls and marched them off to school.
The Caribbean was waking up.
A passenger jet cut across the sky overhead, a reminder I would be on one in just two months. I pushed the thought out of my head. I could easily live here another two years.
What to teach today.
My 1pm class had at least nine very bright students who wanted to learn English – a true blessing for an English teacher in a Latino country. My 4pm class had around the same.
The problem lay with those who didn’t try. The thing about a language is if you chill, process what has been said to you and implement an ounce of cognitive reasoning it is possible to learn.
Some students however throw up a roadblock in their brains.
“That isn’t Spanish!” yells their brain in a panic.
“We can’t understand that.”
Others watch my actions, think about it and hazard a guess.
Yesterday one of my favourite students was leaving school as I arrived.
“¿A dónde vas?” I asked him.
His English was not good but he always showed up, participated and was respectful. And he had a cracking sense of humour, which I loved.
In Spanish he explained his cousin was killed in a gang shoot-out in Turbaco, a small town about an hour out of Cartagena. The funeral service was in an hour and Turbaco was an hour’s bus ride away.
Well what the hell do you say to that? I excused him from my class.
When something awful happens here the journalists print pictures of it.
I am not talking pictures depicting it; I am talking pictures of it.
When I worked at a newspaper in Australia there were many car crash fatalities. They were often avoidable. As I stood speaking with the police officer beside what was once a person or a car, my heart grieved at the pointlessness, the waste of human life.
I would print a picture of the mangled wreck of the car in hopes it would jolt people into the realisation that sending a text or overtaking with barely enough space can end like this – twisted metal and burnt flesh.
In Cartagena however the pictures are of the dead. A widow, roadside, crying over the body of her husband as he lies beside his crumpled motorbike. Red blood gone black on the bitumen.
A teenager with his skull opened in a machete fight, the contents of that skull spilled out and printed right there, in colour, on the front page of all three local newspapers.
The thing about this information is you cannot judge it through western eyes until you have lived here. Here life is cheaper, simply because there are less rules, less means of safety. People take motorbike taxis because they are half the price of taxi cars. Unless you plan to fly to Colombia and cover the difference you cannot judge the safety measures here.
For around 240 days I have been living here, and for about 200 of those days I have caught moto-taxis. I have had around 5 close calls, where my heart flew into my mouth and I thought, well, at least I got to live my dream before I died.
Fingers crossed I make it through two more months of these rides. I have already seen three who didn’t.
And yet there is a joy here.
When you ask a Colombian how they are, they will very often reply without hesitation “Excelente!”
This never fails to buoy my spirits. These are the people I talk to every day. Street vendors, taxi or moto drivers, fellow professors or housewives sweeping the fat green leaves from the street in front of their houses.
They are not rich but perhaps this is their secret.
This country is filled with music and noise and life. If you cut a Colombian’s arm, music will come out. In the tiendas (little stores that sell everything), on the buses, in the taxis, on the beach, from the boomboxes groups of friends sit around, from the boots of parked cars on Sunday afternoon. It is a place saturated in music.
I often feel like my life has a soundtrack as I walk around on my daily happenings in this city.
The one gift Colombia has given me is contentment. It has re-taught me what I once knew. (I was far more intelligent at 12 than in my 20s).
Life is temporary. At any moment you could be hit by something bigger than you and killed. Especially here!
So enjoy it.
When someone asks you how you are, if you are not replying “Excelente!” it is time to ask yourself why not.
The one thing I will take away from this country is a renewed appreciation for life.
My lungs breathe air and my legs bend whenever I tell them to. I (usually) have food to eat. This already gives me more reason to be happy than a lot of our Earth’s population.
One day I caught a taxi into the historical centre to run errands.
Windows down, and palms beating out the rhythm of salsa on his steering wheel; I looked at my driver’s face. Sea breeze blew into the taxi.
“¿A dónde va mi amor?” he asked me with the chopped coastal Spanish of los costeños.
Where are you going my love?
On the coast they use mi amor (my love), mi reina (my queen) and mi vida (my life). It is something I will dearly miss.
When I asked him how he was he replied “Excelente!” without a second thought.
“Por qué?” I asked.
“Mira,” he said, swinging one hand towards the ocean, “y escucha,” he said, turning up the dial on the salsa.
“La vida es Hermosa.”
(Look…and listen….life is beautiful.)
A year seemed like a good chunk of time. A chunky chunk. One not to be looked over like six months. Skinny, wishful ‘six months,’ who talked a lot, but who nobody really took seriously.
Well it was only 11 months really. But it was a faraway place and that was the most important part of it all.
In a world where everything seemed to me it had been done before. You could barely conjure an idea without some smug pair of lips babbling how they spent a year doing that very ludicrous thing when they were 22 and had left a long-term relationship.
“While I was living in Nicaragua I was taken in by a one legged healer and his wife. We ate nothing but tomalis and I didn’t check my Facebook for months, that’s right months, at a time. It was a really hard time in my life, and it’s changed me for the better.”
Oh shut it.
It seemed to me at times I had been born too late. We knew it all, we’d tried it all. We had investigated the magic of everything so thoroughly that we had scientifically gotten to the bottom of it. And that is the indisputable best way to kill magic.
Burke and Wills had had the life. Underprepared, unguided; setting into the great unknown to die with urine in their bellies and lips blistered into bubbles like the fine, lifting skin of a dead lizard, swollen under the Australian sun.
Enshrined forever in the glorious doom of the true adventurer.
Now you had to go to more and more extremes to touch foot on virgin trails. You had to buy a motorbike and drive backwards through continents on one wheel, or sell your house on Ebay and move to places nobody had heard of.
Once I read somewhere, “you don’t have to move to India to find yourself.”
I tried to live by this for a little while. Tried to look inside myself, straight through the freckled skin of my chest, past the throbbing little veins that shot blood throughout me, deeper than the clockwork physical, to focus my eyes to persistent green slits and stare into the existential soul of myself.
But in the end it didn’t work, and I decided that maybe I did have to move to India. Only the rapes in India made me cry, and instead of the spiritual heart of that country and stunning landscapes, I thought only of hurt women holding their knees. And my childhood longing to visit evaporated. Poof. Into the Queensland sky.
I decided on Colombia instead, the second friendliest country I had visited.
But I was not a fool. I knew this move alone wouldn’t quiet the mind that whirred at night, a million miles an hour like a plastic windmill stuck in a chain-mail fence. Spinning in glinting pinks and silvers, all that energy expended, yet going nowhere.
I had to do something, I had to challenge myself. With a language, with a culture, with new work and foods and people. But I also had to allow for internal mechanics to loosen, to reform, to rust and take on a new beauty.
I had figured out, finally, a small truth. And it had only taken me 27 years.
It was helped along, as always, by the words of Mary Oliver.
“You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
I had only to let my energy unfold. Slow as a green fern unfurling. Gentle and fresh and probing. Or bold as a buffalo calf kicking its way free of the birth sack, and into the arid, dangerous world of the African plains.
I had only to let it be. My will was strong, but my harmony needed the room to move, the chance to stretch out, test itself and perch, balanced, at its rightful equilibrium.
Part letting it be. Part letting conscious decisions guide your trajectory.
Existentialism: “A philosophical theory or approach that emphasises the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.”
I crept quietly from my dorm room, the other girls curled in sleep like kittens.
Shoes in hand, I met Laas in the foyer for our 5km run, circumventing the ancient walled city of Cartagena; Centro Historico.
A well-built running partner in South America was a bonus, just in case someone fancied your Ipod.
Past fairytale scenes. Pink bougainvillea sprouting from mint-green walls, yellow-washed balconies with sea-blue trimmings. Dark skinned locals in hip-hugging pants chatted as the neighbourhood woke.
No wonder this was the romantic city. Everything within Cartagena’s old walls was beautiful. The doors were from Colonial times, huge and full of stories.
As my sneakers pounded the brickwork I pictured the Spanish invaders, resplendent in red and gold threads, trotting their carriages in through the thick wooden doors, turning in the spacious interior courtyard, the horses steaming heavily in the humidity.
“You set the tempo,” came Laas’ Denmark accent, breaking my reverie.
‘Get ready to crawl,’ I thought.
We kept up a pretty good pace. It was too early for the pony-drawn carriages that now pulled tourists through the pretty streets, and too early for the barrage of taxis.
The ornate doorknockers looked down at us. Lions, iguanas, a fish king, even a cockatoo.
We picked up the pace, jogging through an opening in the historic wall, out to the morning buzz of traffic; Cartagena was yawning.
Past a park; a man stretched out on his couch, looking across the sea, and tightened the scrap of rope he used as a belt. Another man rifled through an industrial bin. The stench of urine signalled the bedroom of the homeless.
Little waves crashed against the sea wall and palm trees flapped lazily. I looked with disbelief at my new home for a year. Yeah there was highway, but there was also an ancient fortress wall….and a beach.
A breeze cooled my neck (a small miracle in Cartagena I am told). This isn’t so bad I thought, just as The Fleet Foxes sung in my ear… lyrics about a wall.
Under the yawning canopy of fig trees, dark green and glossy. Here the morning was in full swing. It was 6.45am and already the plantain (big bananas) were being deep fried in heart-stopping oil.
The recarga (mobile phone credit) vendors were in their usual spots, surveying all with their usual disdain. The ceviche vendors were still tucked in bed somewhere, no doubt with a fan going full bore.
There was still a slight choke of car fumes, even at this hour, and it made me miss my morning beach runs on Mooloolaba’s white sands. We truly are spoilt in Australia.
We cut back away from the ocean, away from that sea breeze.
As we rounded what I hoped was the final corner of the wall I held four fingers up hopefully in Laas’ direction.
With a laugh he shook his head and signalled we’d only done 3km. The humidity crept over me like an unwanted friend. Holy hell…..what’s it like to run here at 8am!
That night I met up with met a friend for a cerveza (beer) in the square beside the famous clock tower.
He was a Colombian gent from Cali (1.5hrs flight south of Cartagena) and worked around Colombia as a tour guide. We sipped and people-watched as he spilled the beans on the city’s secrets.
“That square is where the slaves were auctioned,” he said.
“And this square here is known as the one of prostitution.”
It wasn’t long before I saw he was right. Groups of women, subtle in their twos or threes, had begun cutting slow and deliberate laps around the packed square.
I had read about the troubling prostitution situation of Cartagena; women who needed the money, drawn to the tourist honeypot of the Old Town.
This report by the always on-the-pulse Vice.com, highlights the sad reality of underage exploitation in Cartagena. Bound to happen in the playground of rich foreigners.
It was an interesting place. Inside the historic walls people whipped out smartphones for selfies, motorbike taxis were banned from entry – to stop drive by handbag thefts- and there was an atmosphere of charm and frivolity.
Outside the walls the feeling changed. Life became real again, the buses were hot and crowded, and many lived life in slums, oblivious to the cavorting within the walls.
In my five days in the city I’d seen little of Cartagena’s other faces, save a hot one-hour bus back from one of the furthest centres where volunteers taught English.
I’d also ventured into a Centro Commericial (small street mall) for the worst haircut of my life.
There were no airs and graces. The lady begrudgingly cut my already short hair, complaining the whole time in Spanish that if she cut anymore off I would be bald.
I knew South Americans preferred long hair but I reminded her through gritted teeth that it was my hair, not hers. She grew increasingly annoyed. At one point I had to take the scissors out of her hand and demonstrate how to thin a fringe.
She was clearly used to trimming the end from Repunzel locks and calling it a day.
“I’m going to charge her 20 for bothering me so much,” she said in Spanish.
My friend translated and I was sure to fish out the exact (agreed upon) price of 15,000 for the hack-fest.
Despite the gringos in the old city I liked how there were also so many costeños. They occupied amazing ground level apartments behind bright yellow, orange or blue painted walls.
In the afternoons costeños cranked up their music, the heady beats of regaeton, cumbia and salsa spinning out into the afternoon heat. They sat out in plastic chairs, the old men often airing their bellies, and threw back tiny espresso shots of tinto.
There was a real energy in this city. I was excited for the year ahead.
If only rent wasn’t so damn expensive.
Have you ever had that in-between feeling? Like in high school when the PE teacher had a stroke of genius and implemented a semester of water polo.
There we all bobbed, treading water with similar competence to the way a baby feeds itself. I was as at home in the water as a fish in the sky. Not a flying fish. Just a regular Spanish mackerel.
I rotated my legs valiantly in eggbeater kick, my nose inches above the mocking stink of chlorine, waiting, bobbing, hoping nobody would throw the ball my way. The shouts of my classmates echoed off the Fairholme swimming-pool walls.
I lifted my eyes to a beam of sunlight stabbing in through the top louvre on the western side and thought how I would always remember this moment in time; treading water, waiting.
That is how the past two months have felt to me, since returning from South America.
As I sat on my Brisbane-bound plane I realised I shouldn’t be on it. That I should have stayed over there and done all the things I wanted to do.
(Including but not limited to sleeping in the jungle with only a can of deodorant and a lighter to make a flame torch against jaguar attack, volunteering at a hostel for a few months and using my savings for nothing but surf lessons and coconuts, and above all becoming fluent in that curly language they call Spanish.)
To clarify that statement, the reason I returned early was for Christmas with my family; to meet our cousins’ two new babies and eat prawns around the pool with the extended family, which we haven’t done in years. And I am happy I’ll be here for that. It puts a huge grin across my freckled face actually.
But there is something nagging at me. I feel like Red Riding Hood – who has left the path when she shouldn’t have.
They say the difference between entrepreneurs and us normal people is tunnel vision. Entrepreneurs have the ability to look directly and unwaveringly at their goal.
The problem with my goals is there are thousands of them, all swinging their buoyant red-poppy heads in the breeze, all begging for immediate attention.
It is no easy task to distil my focus.
I am learning though, as the years creep merrily by, that we have other senses. Mostly these get ignored.
It takes discipline of perspective to listen to these extra senses. It is something you have to consciously work at. Most of the time you are giving yourself advice and signals, which you ignore.
If I have a conflict in my life, big or small, my body is aware of it before my brain consciously is. I will wake with a knot in my stomach. I will feel wound up like a coil, ready to act with instinct in a burst of action.
This is not a good thing! Success in this situation relies on the brain catching up and considering the action I am about to take.
This is knowing yourself. This is what self-discovery is all about.
Once I fired off a reply email. It was following a rather unfounded complaint to the local paper I was working at, in my undertrained and overworked position as senior journalist. I was still a green sapling in the journo world, but like most papers in regional areas, the young ones have to step up to a role often beyond their experience.
We had no editor, and the former senior journalist had just moved to a bigger newspaper….so I was it.
This is a great thing for training and character building, but it often means you are learning by trial and error.
The next morning I woke with a knot in my stomach. Lying there, looking up at the white ceiling of my Dalby house, I let my thoughts filter idly in and out of my brain like the tide.
Why was I feeling like this?
Aaaaah. The email. It was only the next day I realised I had taken the wrong tone in it. Thanks hindsight…..right on time as usual.
From this I learned. Never write back to an email involving conflict/drama straight away. Go and make a coffee. Write a draft. Mull it over.
What is sent cannot be retracted.
I think the key to life is to never stop learning. That is how the world goes backwards; when people start to think they know it all. That is how we close our minds.
Back to the other senses though…..that is one of the main things I want to get out of 2015. Learning to listen to my inner voice properly. Learning to say no to things I don’t need or want in my life, and to keep my own focus when there are a million beckoning hands on the sidelines.
My problem is I can enjoy most situations, so I am easily led to distraction.
If you have ever felt this also, you may enjoy this poem by one of my all-time FAVOURITE poets, Mary Oliver. Read it. Get shivers. Listen to yourself.
The Journey- Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
The thing is we haven’t been taught how to do this. Schools should teach quiet time of reflection. Halfway through the 90 minute Maths-B double lesson all the students should be asked to lie on the floor, close their eyes, and reflect on how they are feeling in life, what they want to get out of the week, and whether they are doing enough to keep their bodies and minds in harmony.
Instead we have to learn it the hard way: through teenage angst, overloading our poor adolescent shoulders with the worries of the world, and listening to advice from all angles from people who don’t necessarily know what you need.
We need a form of unlearning. Of quieting the outer world. Turning off the TV and sitting for a moment on the front lawn. Digging your fingernails into the grass and thinking about your name and your place in the scheme of things.
“the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,”
Oh Mary. So wise.
My in-between feeling is still there, but it is a necessary one. It’s stopped getting me down, I’ve realised I am supposed to be treading water at the moment. It reminds me not to just sit and get mouldy. It reminds me I’ve got places to be.
Thanks inner voice. I get it now.
I left my blinds open and woke with the sun, lorikeets screeching out their bitchy hierarchy in the gums above my head.
I could hear my housemate clanging in the kitchen in that way that early risers do, figuring morning is for waking, and you can sleep when you’re dead.
It felt good to rise as nature intended, though it required going to bed at gramps-o’clock.
I was splitting my day between matters of personal happiness and annoying, obligatory jobs begging attention before Christmas, so I ate a good breaky of eggs and caffeine. I wouldn’t be back til late afternoon.
Last week the fantastic news that I’d received the green light for my Colombia job arrived without fuss in my inbox.
You have been accepted to the English Teaching Fellowship to work in Cartagena de Indias.
Its brevity was great, though a little shocking. I looked up from the couch on my ordinary Tuesday night and let my little heart soar.
Then I googled Cartagena.
“The jewel of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, with a charming colonial, old city.”
Heck yes. My kite surfing dreams would at last come into fruition.
Absentmindedly I thought about what to pack for a year in paradise. All I could think of was bikinis and my favourite pen.
I hoped I could track down somewhere safe to live, that didn’t cost too much. I wanted to spend most of my monthly stipend on Spanish lessons, attending theatres and scuba diving.
I would be teaching English to the poorer people of the nation (all ages), and would be well out of my depth for the first couple of months at least.
That week I bounced around. Someone could have pelted me with eggs as I rode to work and I wouldn’t have minded. I had a secret and it was a good one.
I knew I’d be in for a pretty tough year, but I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it.
For now, reality beckoned.
I packed my laptop, an apple and some water and pedaled off to my psychologist appointment. I looked harder than normal at our fabulous Aussie trees. I wouldn’t be seeing them for a while.
I’d decided to deal with some stuff that had been getting me down. As a naturally happy person I woke up one day realising I had lost some of that somewhere along the way.
It was time to delve into that mental back drawer that most of us spend our lives ignoring.
I had been recommended to an amazing, professional woman who spoke the language of the heart, through the tongue of the brain.
Sharp as a tack, passionate and sensibly analytical she was just the kind of person I needed to shine my reflection back at me.
I cannot recommend seeing a psychologist highly enough if there is something troubling you. I think we should see them as frequently as dentists to be honest. Probably more.
It was an hour’s appointment and I left with that satisfied feeling you get when you fish a grape out from under the refrigerator. Dealing with something that had been out of sight, out of mind, and would just have festered.
I had a letter to write to someone important in my life, so called into an op-shop to buy the cute vintage writing paper such an occasion demanded.
On my way out I spotted a sex shop. I hadn’t been into one since college days, when we would leave notes on the cork ‘meeting board’ up the back saying “looking for open-minded orgy companions, call me” and signed off with out friend’s number. Haha!
“Morning,” said the young male behind the counter a little too brightly.
I was somewhat ambushed.
He sprung up like an erection.
“Can I help you with something?”
“Um, I was just walking past and thought I’d look,” I replied.
Ha. Bet he hears that one a lot.
I walked towards the nearest shelf, which of course was a beautifully arranged display of vibrators. One had bunny ears on the business head, obviously designed by somebody not in possession of a vagina.
“They’re great,” said the vagina-less man.
“What size are you looking for?”
“We’ve got a great range of realistic ones,” he said, sweeping an arm in the direction of the well-endowed shelf.
“Or these little ones are great for travelling, and super quiet,” he continued, putting a buzzing one into my hand.
It was all a little amusing; I relished impromptu experiences like this.
Things became a little awkward when he started a paragraph-like (though very informative) description of the benefits of clitoral versus penetration options.
I didn’t want to interrupt him, but the buzzing in my hand was becoming a little strange to hold, and I didn’t know how to turn it off.
The button would have to be on the erm…dry end I reasoned, as he chatted away. Close but no cigar.
When he’d stopped talking I handed the small instrument back, and he shut it off like a pro. He would make some girl very happy one day, with or without battery-operated help!
“Well, thank you,” I said sincerely.
“You really know your stuff. I might pop back on the weekend.”
When I’d left I thought of a hundred great puns I could have used. Dammit!
“Great G-spot you’ve got here, it’s got a real buzz about it.”
“Been open long or short?”
“I’ll just go out the same way I came in.”
I made my way to my favourite Mooloolaba Café, Envy. I’d done a trial here a while ago and the atmosphere was so relaxed it felt like you were hanging out at a friend’s place.
Sometimes it was hard to identify the actual staff, as they floated by with the urgency of a Bolivian storekeeper.
Like most places on the coast it was overpriced, but I paid my $5.50 for a mug of flat white made on almond milk (YUM) and pulled up a pew.
I wrote a six-page letter. Pausing to laugh, cry and sometimes look up to catch the approving glance of an elderly person who thought the art of pen to paper had long been killed-off by our generation.
It was $5.50 well spent; good tunes kept rolling, the coffee was excellent and no annoyingly bright waitresses bugged you like on the esplanade.
I had forgotten the pleasure of writing a letter rather than an email. The slow pace of penmanship forces you to think about each sentence properly before you blurt it (something I am direly missing in conversation.) It was a great cure for my ever-present foot-in-mouth disease.
I popped it in the post box across the road, like sending off an old friend on the train, and went to finish my Christmas shopping. As usual I bought one for them and one for me…..the only way to get through the drollness of Christmas shopping.
As I paid with cash I shouldn’t be spending a warning rumble of thunder sounded.
I peered up into a menacing sky, got on my bike and prepared to race nature. The sky darkened with a smirk as I waited for the lights to change.
I could feel the air changing in that way it does when it is about to absolutely piss down.
I had gift-wrapped presents dangling from my handlebars and my laptop in my backpack. It was on.
Green light, I gunned it across Venning St, the sky rumbling smugly overhead. I must look like a tiny ant running home.
As I sped past Ocean View Av the drops started coming. What Forest Gump would call “Big ol’ fat rain.”
No!! I pumped my stumpy legs faster, feeling the burn. This is what Lance Armstrong must have felt on those ferocious hills during the Tour de France.
Oh, that’s right, he had drugs helping him. Lucky bugger.
More drops, my sunglasses ran rivers.
I thought about sheltering under someone’s garage but it looked like the kind of rain that would set in for a good hour.
I was only a few blocks from home, and I’ve always enjoyed a challenge. I kicked my steel steed into racing gear, and put my head down as though on the velodrome.
Racing speed on my bike was similar to that attained by a nanna on a slight downhill slope. As I passed the beckoning shelter of the local fish and chip shop, I knew I’d made a rookie error.
One street from home and the heavens opened.
I could imagine them up there (whoever they were) yelling, “Get her! Drown the little ant! It wore a yellow shirt today, how silly of it!”
I arrived home transparent and delighted with the adrenalin of it all. One present to re-wrap.
The rain kept coming down, soothing and beautiful, soaking into the thirsty coastline.
I put on Double J in the background and prepped dinner while the thunder belted its way across the sky.
Is there anything as good as a stormy day when you’re not at work!
On the second leg of my three day voyage home to Aus I flew from Los Angeles to Honolulu, Hawaii.
I hit the tarmac at 8.30pm, island time, and was due to leave again at 9.45am the next day.
Perfect, I thought. I would sniff out a cheap room somewhere, buy fish for dinner and have an early morning dip before heading back to the airport.
But my plans were thwarted. My money had not transferred back onto my Aussie card as promised by the lovely lady at ANZ.
And so I found myself with five US dollars in my pocket and around 12.5 hours to kill.
I stared in disbelief as the hibiscus shirted staffer spoke.
“There aren’t any showers in this airport, and we don’t have wifi,” he informed me.
“That’s ok, I enjoy counting tiles anyway.”
He didn’t laugh.
I sat on a chair and pondered, beautiful images of Hawaii’s beaches and waterfalls mocking me from the mounted flatscreens. I couldn’t even afford a taxi to get some dinner and return.
I was nodding off so went to find my roost for the night.
It was hot as Hades outside, muggy as a proper Cairns summer. The ‘waiting areas’ were open to the air, with numerous people camped out with bags. They were clearly passengers, but one guy had a sleeping mat and another guy had a dog, who were clearly not. It was a bit too suss to sleep there with my video camera and laptop I thought, so I made my way down to the enclosed baggage collection area.
Curled awkwardly across three chairs whose armrests wouldn’t go up, I stuffed clothing around them to lessen the dig on my stomach and legs.
To take my mind off the hunger I actually counted tiles.
I met two sisters who were also spending the night. Joy and Jem from Los Angeles. Cute as buttons. They had just returned from visiting family in South Korea, and the Honolulu airport was a rude shock after the plushness of Seoul’s.
They had loved South Korea.
“The people don’t really speak much English, but they were still all so helpful,,” Joy told me.
“They would go out of their way to help us. And the food was amazing.”
It had never been on my list, but now I considered it. It sounded very similar to my experiences in Japan.
We fell asleep haphazardly.
The music was good, until interrupted by frequent messages much louder than the music, and thus startling.
“Due to increased security baggage found unattended will be confiscated and destroyed,” boomed the excessive voice.
This seemed like an ambitious target in a deserted airport with no wifi, showers or manpower.
At the unspecific time of 1.23am we were awoken by an apologetic security officer.
“Sorry mam but we have to lock this building now. We open it again at 4am.”
“Can I go up one level?”
“So that will be open?”
“No, we’re about to lock that too.”
“So I can’t go up a level then.”
“You can go to the curb. I’m sorry about that.”
Radical. Hopefully the good vibes of Hawaii will protect me from being robbed on the final leg home.
On the plus side it was much warmer outside and the concrete bench was fit for a queen. A really wide but impoverished queen.
There was a faint smell of cigarette butts rising from the garden beneath my head…similar to tucking a sprig of lavender beneath your pillow for a good night’s sleep. But not at all.
I stretched out, my hoodie as a pillow, and fell instantly asleep under the muggy sky.
This ain’t so bad I thought as I drifted off.
I dreamed of food. And swimming.
Someone began spitting on me. Even through my subconscious I’d been woken up by rain enough times to realise this wasn’t actually spit.
Godammit Hawaii, throw me a fricken bone here.
We relocated to smaller, harder benches fit for one and a half toddlers. Ugh.
After snatching a few disrupted hours (to the lovely sound of rain) I was woken by the roar of a metal beast. It was around 4am because staff were beginning to file into the baggage claim area.
An impossibly loud truck with ‘Dry Ice’ scrawled across its side blasted off down the road.
I was too tired to write so I took off my shirt in the bathroom and washed my armpits with the hand-soap, changed my underwear and splashed my face. No showers. Tsssss.
Hours crawled by like injured rats. I put two coats of nailpolish on both my fingers and toenails.
I dreamed of the first steak sandwish (pun intended) with beetroot and caramelised onion I would order when I went to visit my Dalby girls.
Finally, 6:45am. I ditched my big bag and set off to security through the stream of overweight American tourists being led by a guide in hibiscus print. They mostly wore sneakers, socks, and awkward length shorts (both men and women).
Then came the hordes of Asian tourists in much the same fashion but with better luggage.
A mountain of a woman got into an argument with a staffer, Jem and Joy woke up and we said goodbye, and everywhere repulsively touristic happenings kept happening.
This is the side of Hawaii I’d make sure to avoid if I ever made it beyond the airport.
Away from the chaos I ventured deeper into the folds of my airport prison to see what $5 could buy me in this fine land.
It was seven in the morning and Burger Kind had a line-up. Disgusting. I had three options:
1) Starbucks: Fruit cup for $4.45, (tragically the yoghurt and muesli cup was $5.20)
2) Burger King: A crois-wich (or some equally stupid name) for $4.50 which was a croissant with egg, cheese and some spammy looking meat.
3) The Asian place: Two bits of French toast (sweet) for $4.50 or a vegetarian omelette for $4.50.
I went with the omelette for maximum filling capacity, and it was actually quite good.
So many hours left. This is what it must feel like to be sentenced to death by cheese grater.
I looked to the TV to break my gloom.
An American suit called Hagel was speaking live from the Pentagon.
The US would be launching a longterm campaign against ISIS. Belgium, Denmark and ?Spain? had also jumped onboard, and the British Parliament had just voted to join their yankee chums too.
I wondered what news from Australia on that front. It had been pleasant being away while Abbott was in control, but now it seemed I was returning for the next bout of madness.
CNN was having a field day, for once having fresh fodder to fill their revolving crap cycle. I mean news. News cycle.
I hadn’t researched enough about Isis to have an opinion on it. All I knew was their decree for the forced genital mutilation of every female in one town. I hoped it hadn’t come to pass.
I sat with a rumbling stomach. I was $1.50 shy of an espresso coffee, and the sad realisation that Hawaiin Airlines would serve only one small meal on the whole flight sunk in.
I was going to eat a horse when I got to Brisbane……hopefully one of my sisters had one, because I had not one dime accessible.
Spirit Airways, the cheapest way I could fling my travel-weary body from Bogota, Colombia across to Los Angeles.
Their seats don’t recline and their airhostesses yell at you without finesse to stow your bags under the seat for takeoff. But hey, that $200 saving is half a month’s travel in South America!
I sat beside a lady and her son, originally from Panama. I looked at the rich purple/black of her skin and wished for the millionth time I could go ten shades darker. Her clothing was like a vibrant shout against that shade.
“You should go there when you return to Central America. It’s a really good place to travel there.”
She told me about her favourite area.
“Watch your stuff, but you get that everywhere. Food is really cheap, and a taxi is like $3.
“The only thing is there’s a lotta hookers around there, but they shouldn’t bother you.”
We both laughed at that.
“Hopefully not,” I agreed.
With a budget airline the five hours felt like ten. I thanked the powers that be (whoever they may be) for my short legs and tried unsuccessfully to sleep on my window.
Two hours to kill in Fort Lauderdale, which was beautiful to land in at night, ablaze with a grid-work of lights. Luckily for me I made a friend.
As always, the best people I meet travelling seem to appear in the dullest spots. A boring layover where you eat your over-cheesed sandwich and watch everybody sit on wifi instead of talking.
Organised as usual, I had arranged not much for my midnight arrival in LA, with a whole day and night to kill until I flew out at 6pm the next day.
“If you get stuck,” said my new acquaintance, “you can always crash at mine.”
“I have two bedrooms, and I’m not creepy. And you don’t seem creepy, so that’s always good.”
A stunning woman of Indian heritage, it came as no surprise when she said she’d moved to LA to further her acting career.
She had been acting professionally for around ten years, and I was intrigued to learn that an audition could still be nerve racking after that time.
“It’s good though sometimes because you can turn those nerves into really great on-stage energy,” she said.
We had a great chat about the challenge of doing what you love for a living while walking the thin tightrope of not leaching it of all creative joy.
“I want to write books for a living one day,” I told her.
“Fiction with characters you can really picture, to an extent you know what they’d do in certain situations… as though they are real people.”
We looked around at the crowded waiting lounge, a flat and luck-lustre backdrop for a conversation about chasing your dreams.
Tired people said tired things to each other, chewing airport food unenthusiastically and wishing they were home already.
“You could write about this waiting room and make it really funny, if you just get your dialogue right, and use a fresh perception,” I said, thinking out loud.
It remains my motivation for moving somewhere I know nobody and learning another language. To loosen my mind and distance myself from my ability to earn money through writing. Only then I feel will the proper creative juices flow.
In the end the friend in Venice Beach I had emailed last minute got back to me with great news. Yes I could crash on her couch, she had just finished a late night business meeting and her and her partner were on the way to pick me up from LAX airport now!
“Wait outside, we’re close,” the message buzzed on my laptop.
“Black convertible, see you soon! Xx”
I said goodbye to the kind-hearted actress, and thanked the world for sending a stranger to brighten my dull day of transit. We swapped Facebook details, as is the glory of our times.
There I stood at the front door of the LAX terminal, my chode of a backpack strapped on, and my video camera bag on my front. I looked like 2-Pak, but obviously tougher.
Then they pulled in. Could there be anything more LA? I counted the number of times I’d been collected in a black convertible….oh that’s right…one. LA baby!
I met my friend’s partner for the first time. He walked past my outstretched hand and wrapped me in a bear hug. After just five minuted, whizzing back to Venice Beach with the hood up so we could hear each other, I was glad he was with my Aria.
A handy twenty minutes from the airport, their apartment was a cool studio style layout, one large-room encompassing lounge, bedroom and kitchen, with a bathroom and walk-in robe leading off.
There were surfboards in the bathroom, bikes beside the front door and a huge printed graphic of a New York streetscape with the Flat Iron building immediately drawing the eye.
I slept on the extremely comfy couch, picturing a pile of feathers beneath me. I could hear the very distant hum of LA traffic as I felt myself sink down through the layers of sleep. Just as I drifted out of consciousness I felt content, safe and comfy…once again in the home of a friend.
In the morning, well rested from my time on the couch of dreams, we strolled down Pacific Ave, past the famous Venice Beach sign strung across an intersecting street, and ordered bagels and coffee at Café Collage.
Oh salmon bagel, welcome back to my life. Australia was slowly catching onto the beauty of bagels, but here you could pretty much trip over them.
I liked thinking they had the same effect on my physical appearance as say, broccoli would, however their deliciousness made me doubt this.
We sat on the beach to eat, watching surfers appear on the white caps one by one like evening stars.
Can there be anything better linked to happiness than a morning surf before work. The waves were so close to the beach it was like a box-office seat at the theatre.
I watched a guy scampering back and forth on his longboard, distributing his weight with each lift and drop of the wave. Eventually, the wave won.
We talked for around an hour about almost everything, my golden-haired friend and I. Love, sustainability, growing into adults, living in a smaller place but a better location, the need to run away from life as you know it and return wiser, better travelled and with a newfound tenacity.
We had met in primary school and seemed to have grown into adults who still shared similar values and enjoyed an easy connection. I love our generation’s view of the world, the ability to reduce it in size so that moving overseas no longer means you drift inevitably away from people.
Thank you technology and great airfare deals.
We spent the morning in her apartment, her working remotely and me remotely working…mostly scouting jobs in Australia and Colombia.
In between we’d break for coffee or chocolate. It was good old-fashioned girl hangs, and much needed.
Back on the job search, depressing and hopeful at the same time. Eventually the temptation of the pool was too much. I let the cold water swallow me as choppers cruised overhead in the LA skyline.
One mention must be made of the take-out we got from Pacific Ave’s culinary gem…..Mexican joint, The Flying Jalapeno.
Holy smack that food is good. With a whole counter of fresh toppings, you create your own taco, burrito or bowl of delicious.
They cooked my fish fresh and I chose black beans, guacamole, lettuce, corn, grilled peppers, onion and some unknown breed of great salsa.
As I sat waiting for my fish, sipping an amazing house-made lemonade, I realised I had misjudged Venice Beach on my last visit.
Don’t get me wrong, I still hate the boardwalk strip of weird beggars and hawkers, but I was pleasantly surprised by the foot, board and bicycle traffic that went past as I waited.
Many people running, surfers, Dads with great tattoos carrying kids on shoulders, girls with wicked rockabilly hairdos, artistic types and pinup types.
I also noticed the street art everywhere, which I hadn’t seen as much of on my last visit, and my friend informed me of the fantastic local arts and creative community in the area.
With a bit of afternoon left before the hours at the airport began, I walked the very short jaunt to the Venice canals.
Built by American developer and environmentalist Abbot Kinney in 1905, the canals fell into disrepair after losing functionality/popularity with the increase of the automobile in Los Angeles.
They were drained, renovated and refilled in 1992 and are now home to some stunning and pricey waterfront houses.
It’s a beautiful walk, with white, arched bridges intersecting the walkways and canoes and rowboats moored nonchalantly in front of houses.
The gardens burst with hydrangeas, bougainvillea and yellow hibiscus bursting in vibrant colour pops on all sides. Little fish swam, the water was still and the day felt easy.
So, Venice Beach, on round two I liked you much better.
NB: No photos because I lost my camera in an overloaded taxi in Peru. Sigh.
The great thing about visiting friends scattered across the United States is the variation in places that we visit.
We touched down in Buffalo, state of New York, with images of hoe-downs and chicken wings racing through my mind.
While I didn’t see the first, the latter was in delicious abundance. Nobody does Buffalo wings like a Buffalonian.
After reaching our friend’s house (she was at work) we sat on the couch, ate a bagel, and woke up in a daze one hour later. I have always liked how your body calls the shots. If it’s exhausted it will just shut down, without warning, like a flat microphone.
She had left the keys to her Jeep, and feeling very Americana, we drove the hour to the school she taught at to offer ourselves as Aussie show-and-tell.
The neighbourhoods were so American it was funny. I felt like I was featuring in Dennis The Menace. Front porches sporting American flags stood proudly on green lawns that ran to the road without fences. There were maple trees lining the streets and people doing wholesome things like tending gardens.
Memorial Day weekend was coming up so patriotism was in full swing. Every second house had a flag.
As we got closer to the school I noticed the neighbourhoods drop in affluence. I knew it was a lower socio-economic school, which made me only more keen to see it. Having gone to an girls private school it was completely the opposite.
Cool groups of kids hung around the lockers in the hallway, teachers and students were in dress, and everyone was more relaxed and in my opinion more grown-up feeling than when I sat in front of a blackboard.
We visited art class. A girl with eyeliner and a cool fringe told us about the places she’d lived. She was cool and collected, far more mature than I remembered myself at her age.
Another kid up the back was bent quietly to his work. One of the best students, his teacher told us. After the class emptied the teacher showed us a chair he had painted. It was beautiful. She explained the scenes on each side and their meaning was sad and simple in places, dark but hopeful in others.
Kids never cease to amaze me. Youth is an amazing thing. I find it often more truthful than the lives many adults are living. Before it has been corrupted by expectations or norms. It’s probably the closest we come to being who we truly are in some ways.
The kids couldn’t carry backpacks until the bell rang due to gun security. I thought sadly how the power of the gun lobby in America continued to block gun control reforms and put people’s lives at risk. As I walked down the corridors I imagined shots ringing out and the blind panic of hundreds of bodies trying to cram through one small doorway to safety. It is a mind-boggling concept that the safety of American children can be out-muscled by the greed of companies selling steel.
While we were in the States 22-year-old Elliot Rodger stabbed to death his three roommates and then shot down three people in cold blood before killing himself. None of them had turned 23 yet.
It went down in Santa Barbara, California. A really nice town with excessively high prices that we’d stopped in for lunch on our road trip the week before. One victim was shot down in a sandwich shop.
Rodger’s parents had alerted authorities about concerns over their son months before the May 16 attack, but no grounds were found to detain him or search his premises.
In a manifesto published online Rodger cited a history of rejection from women as his motive. Just another messed up kid given too easy access to murder. If he couldn’t walk into a store and buy a gun perhaps he would have done something else destructive. I used to pinch a carton of eggs from the fridge and pelt them one by one at the horse trailer to deal with my own inexpressible juvenile angst. Nobody was ever killed during this ten minute release of anger.
The pro-gun lobbyists say it’s people not guns that kill. Stabbing three people is one thing, but standing metres away and letting the pull of a trigger mow down three more is a damn sight easier.
Maybe one day the head of America’s powerful and filthy rich National Rifle Association will have someone they love gunned down in cold blood. Until that day they will continue to pour money into opposing any kind of gun reform in the United States. It’s a sad, stupid state of affairs and one I have little patience for debating anymore. Every time they pick the young body of a school massacre off the ground I wonder dully how it is even still up for debate.
We walked down the hall where some kids were painting a mural on the wall.
“Good job guys,” said our teacher friend.
She walked to a boy kneeling down painting the white caps of waves.
“I think we need to get a little more shading on this light coming out of the lighthouse,” she said.
“See how it’s blending too much with the water?”
Leaning back on his haunches the kid surveyed his work and agreed. He dipped his brush in a darker yellow and began adding a subtle shadow line to the lighthouse beam.
people need is nurturing, a bit of guidance and the space to grow and achieve things for themselves.
Seeing my friend interact with the kids was beautiful. She was fun, cheeky and patient with them. I could see how they loved her. If the world had more people like this lady we would be turning out more kids who felt they had options for help, rather than feeling backed into a corner with the need to lash out. My hat off to the great teachers toiling in this world. I know the work doesn’t stop when the bell rings.
I decided a long time ago I wanted to take in foster kids. There seem to be so many souls who aren’t given the chance from the outset. They don’t need much. Just someone who gives a shit and a bed they know they are safe in at night.
That night we gathered at our friend’s parents’ place for a good old fashioned American dinner. Luckily for us they were from a long line of chicken farmers, and their great-grandparents had even paid good money for a secret recipe back in the day.
Just like the KFC legend, before it was commercialised to death!
I love meeting people’s families. People are generally a product of their nature and nurture. Gretty’s family were like her: gracious, hospitable and friendly. And her mum had the same booming laugh I loved her for.
It erupted without warning, pure as honey and honest to its last resounding note.
After her dad found out I worked as a journalist we had some great chats around the barbecue. The US was having fracking dramas with exploration for gas/energy sources similar to Australia’s. I explained our huge underground water table and the fears of local farmers that such a dry country was risking water security for the short term dollar.
Mr Gretty basted the split chicken halves with the secret sauce his ancestors had paid for those years ago. The meat looked out of this world delicious. He wouldn’t tell me the ingredients, a true flavour guardian of the oldest order.
“You should see this place in the winter,” he told me, as we looked across the stunning green spread of his lawn.
“Everything is white. It’s just melted not long before you guys arrived.”
Their house was beautiful, they’d done well. I looked up the street and was sorry I wasn’t here in the waist-deep white of winter. I imagined how red my coat would look against the blanket of white. I imagined the kids dining each others’ doorbells and standing back to pelt snowballs when the door swung open. How different to my dry, inland upbringing of gumtrees and red dirt!
Our hosts covered the table with enough food for a small country, and we ate with relish (the enthusiasm not the condiment) as we envisaged the strict budget ahead for the next five months.
Buffalo probably doesn’t feature high on the average US itinerary, but I was glad we went. The next morning we ate in the garden, cold air on our faces. A red breasted robin and a squirrel frolicked in the garden. I waited patiently for Snow White to step out of the greenery, fawns at her heels. It was very pleasant after the concrete rambling of San Fran.
We visited Niagra falls, spectacular but marred by the casinos on either side. Nature should be natural.
The Hornblower boat glided underneath the hallway of blinding white water, its deck packed with poncho-clad tourists. I pictured the spray raining down on them, their cameras taking blurred snaps of nothing much. Their eyes goggling at the might of it .
That night we went for beers and buffalo wings at a little local joint. Dark and great. A sign on the wall declared “if it needs a blender we’re out of that.”
A moose head hung above the beer taps. The bartender shouted a shot of local whisky. I always hoped I’d find bars like this in America.
We also squeezed in a night out on the town, which was highly amusing. Cinnamon flavoured shots are a big trend at the moment in the US. A bit like shotting pureed bakery items, but tasty nonetheless.
We left the industrial town of Buffalo, with its pretty outer suburbs and unassuming galleries and vintage shops, and clambered onto a bus for New York City.
Little did we know it would be the quickest of our bus trips over the next six months.
30 soles for a Swedish massage….why not.
We limped with aching muscles up the stairs, the two Peruvian ladies leading the way. Peruvians are tiny and beautiful, like the Burmese.
“No ropa, solo las bragas,” she said. (No underwear, just nickers).
Hmm….problem number one. I explained in atrocious Spanish I’d put almost everything I owned into laundry that morning and wasn’t actually wearing any.
“No problem, we are all women,” she said in Spanish.
She began working on my back, running her knuckles down the length of my spine to the plump of my bum.
I pointed out the two ferocious knots on my right shoulder begging for attention and she did her best to skirt this problem. Sigh.
It was soothing nonetheless, as oil and touch inevitably is.
By this time her little daughter had climbed under my table and was firing a rapid succession of “hollas” at my upside down face.
“Holla,” I replied once to her ten. She was cute as a button in her little red trench coat and striped stockings.
She found the sight of an immobilised gringo impossibly funny and kept kneeling so her face was an inch from mine.
She was about four and told me her name was Mina….or something like that.
“Mi nombre is Lisa,” I replied.
I blew her hair and she giggled so much she fell over. I tried to focus on the massage while I laughed. Deciding we weren’t quite close enough she brought her nose right up to mine and rubbed it like a bunny. Only in a South American massage! I liked the informality though, it felt more natural.
Eventually her madre took her outside.
“Ciao chica,” I called to my new friend.
The small lady began massaging my hair, which was more like mussing, less like massaging.
The shoulders, though brief, felt good.
“Muy fuerte (stronger) por favor,” I requested.
She climbed on the table and used her tiny frame to lean into her elbows.
It was similar to a small goat walking across my back.
She moved to the base of the table and wrapped a hand around my big toe, lifting my leg by this odd hoof-handle.
It reminded me of a baby clasping your finger.
With the other hand, which felt smaller and stronger, she began pounding my tender calf.
Dear God. Give me back the Inca Trail….. the thousand steps of death were like feather fingers in comparison.
A tear sprung involuntarily from my eye and sat in a pearl on the carpet beneath my face.
It took a good 10 minutes to soak in. Must be the same carpet old people put in their bathrooms. Weird.
I couldn’t help worrying about the views she was being subjected to from her vantage point at my spread calves.
“Change positions,” she said in perfect English.
Then the brand new experience of a pectoral massage. The arm massage enlightened me to muscles I didn’t know existed, and the quad massage required a teeth-clench. Oh Inca Trail you were cruel.
Overall the experience was painful but freed the muscles to some extent. You certainly get what you pay for though… as all requests in poor but decipherable Español to work on problem areas were ignored.
It was very much a repeated process for each client, rather than the necessary tailored approach per client.
The ferocious knots would have to wait until a better-researched option in Lima. At least some of the Inca Trail pain had been persuaded out of my legs.
New York, New York!
IF you have ever seen a dog riding in the back of a ute – wild eyes rolling, drool flying in gleaming, wet strands – you will understand how it feels to be a human in New York.
For a dog smells are everything. So imagine the ecstasy of hundreds hurtling towards that snoz. The delight as they hit those moist receptors. The information, the gossip they contain. It must be like ecstacy for the canine senses.
As I walked through the streets of the world’s biggest city, wearing the hippest gear I owned and feeling decidedly under-hip, my eyes could not work fast enough.
A guy wielding an elephant-trunk pipe sucked greese from the pit of a takeaway shop, disappearing down the hatch in his perfect NYC street worker costume.
A dog pulled its owner past on rollerblades. The dog just wore feet.
Under the New York Police Department people in costume posed for photos with tourists to make a buck. Spiderman peeled back his head and took a breather, flicking a skittle into his mouth, cool as shit.
A cluster of army/navy ? troops waited at the lights. They were in town for the wknd, and their stiff hats poked ahead like beaks through the human surge of traffic.
There were just people everywhere. Everywhere there was something to watch.
If you visit the Big Apple, get the open bus tour. Bargain it down a little, there’s so many on offer this isn’t hard. Pay $30 or less.
As you glide through the streets on the top deck, traffic lights close to taking you out if you stand to snap a picture, you realise how old and remarkable the city is.
In the good old days people just got stuff done.
The Empire State Building went up in just one year, with four storeys done in one week. Bet Campbell Newman can’t get that kind of progress in Queensland in 2014.
Not many people know it, but a plane crashed into the side of the famous building after WWII.
We glided down 5th Ave, with Rupert Murdoch’s three-storey penthouse throwing a careless shadow across our bus.
I thought of the greedy man sitting up there sipping a gin and planning the biased front pages that marked his Australian papers’ federal election coverage. GRRRR.
“How much do you think it’s worth?” our tour guide asked the group.
My guess of three million was met with laughter and the answer “$57 million actually.”
Whatever you wanted this city had it. We saw Cooper University, a free-tuition institution started by Peter Cooper, which accepted students with the best grades into courses such as architecture, arts and others.
The world needs more opportunities for brains rather than wallets to get you into uni.
Abraham Lincoln spoke there, lucky buggers.
We gazed upon the might of New York University. These guys were so loaded that when building of the premises was halted due to a supplies problem with the quarry, they simply purchased the quarry and finished the job.
Times Square was predictably amazing. Video footage advertising spanning two storeys lit up the sky, hundreds of people gathered for discounted Broadway show tickets, and every few metres someone tried to sell you something.
It was electric.
We stayed in Brooklyn, about 20mins out on the subway line, at the hipster hang of Williamsburg (Billsburg if you’re a real hipster).
It was a different taste of the city. At night empty looking warehouse buildings would slide open a corrugated tin panel and a funky bar or pizza joint would come to life. There was great street art, great coffee and the general hum of daily life that you only find in the suburbs. Families would sit in big groups around someone’s house front sharing drinks and cooking on a heat-bead bbq.
We only had four days in NYC and didn’t care too much about ticking off the tourist list. That doesn’t tell you anything about a city. We didn’t bother with the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building…etc.
Instead we explored the Lower East Side, poked through galleries and museums and generally checked out the scene.
New Yorkers are a funny lot. Street smart and geared faster than the rest. Nice if they have the time, short if they don’t.
I didn’t achieve my dream of banging on a taxi’s yellow hood and yelling “Hey! I’m walkin’ here.”
I highly recommend the New Museum in Brooklyn. One exhibit featured a group of around 12 guys singing and playing guitar constantly for eight hours. The effect was to walk into an almost meditative state of song; harmonies, altos and steadily building intensity to culminate in a beautiful, strange experience.
Some of the guys would stop to have a drink and lie on a mattress in the large room while their comrades carried on the music. It had something to do with the Sigur Ross singer, which I can’t remember.
There was a huge lineup at Footlocker one day for cool kicks, which are like gold teeth in New York. One entrepreneur was even renting camping chairs along the queue.
As we hoofed it past Bryant Park, one of NYC’s best pockets of green, I overhead a kid on a school group outing.
“I should do a thing on it, like a whole science project, about how people respond better to low fives, like right in the middle of the chest region……not high.”
Filled my laugh quota for the day.
After getting my first pimple in years I decided I needed some time out of the smog (which by the way is nowhere near as bad as Bangkok, as most New Yorkers catch public transport and don’t clog the roads), so we set up camp at Central Park.
It is magic. Visit it.
There are whole Instagram and online communities dedicated to exploring new pockets of this amazing green sprawl.
I shut my eyes and dug my fingernails deep into the grass. It was still so loud! A muffled loudness, but that NYC buzz was still there.
Big groups of friends shared food and swapped babies; a steady stream of horses pulling carriages, plumes bouncing, held up pedestrians; kids practised cartwheels; people took photos; kids asked for donations to their basketball team for jerseys; joggers and roller bladers glided by; bold squirrels approached for treats; lovers lay tangled in the sun.
The place was uplifting.
We explored a tiny corner of its immensity. I found forums on people’s favourite parts, and realised you could spend a year in the park and see new things every day.
We left refreshed, and stumbled upon a true highlight.
The street crew who breakdance, flip and spin under the golden horse statue on one edge of Central Park.
A solid crowd had gathered, and they knew how to work it.
I watched as they moved forward in turns and did their thing. Whoa.
Muscles bunched under their dark skin, the kind that came from actually using them, not just pumping them at the gym. The main guy went from a one armed handstand into a dizzying head-spin, then flipped effortlessly onto his feet and into a spinning breakdance move.
And they were funny too.
“Obama wants change, but we want twenties,” the guy yelled to the crowd.
“I want you to keep in mind that the moves we do do risk our bodies, and we could get seriously hurt doing them. But we consider this our job.”
They plucked four people from the crowd, lined them up, and got everyone involved as one crew member (who looked around 10-12 years old) took a running jump and flipped over the top of all four. He landed on the rock-hard cobblestones. Amazing.
“Remember, if we are here performing for you it’s good for two reasons; one – we’re not on the streets, and two, we’re not at your house.”
Two members toured the crowd with their collection hat. Yelling out when there was a good donation.
“We just got ten dollars from New Zealand!”
“Twenty dollars from Mexico!”
An African American lady handed them a tenner and the guy held it up to the sun. She laughed, embarrassed. He was very good looking, shirtless, and flirting with her.
“A black lady just gave us ten dollars, and it’s real!” he yelled to a laughing crowd.
Her and her friend laughed hardest.
We walked the Brooklyn Bridge, being softly shoulder charged by the throng of people going the other way. It was like salmon going upstream.
The structure itself was stunning, curving into a striking assembly of lines the closer you got to the city.
We watched a World Cup qualifier in a crowded pub, drank some of our old friend, Blue Moon – with hunks of orange of course, and fell exhausted into bed at night.
New York, New York. Ha-mazing!
I have always admired nudity in public, particularly as it’s not usually the good-looking people who seem to lead the way.
Look at every streaker to ever grace a sporting field: white ass blazing and skin slapping.
While in San Fran we had a stroke of luck. The annual Bay to Breakers Race was on….kicking off about two blocks from our hotel.
Everyone dresses up for it and there are skill levels from the Kenyans, who do the long distance as a sprint, right down to the fraternity kids who have been drinking since daybreak.
We got in position and let the chaos unfold around us. It was sensational.
San Francisco brought out its best.
There were of course the typical annoying drunk people, young kids who think being loud equals being the most drunk. Just like me ten years ago!
A guy pissed on the street and we moved positions.
The bad-ass San Fran cops cleared the streets and the buzzer sounded. We didn’t really know what we were in for.
The African runners led, naturally, their long limbs eating the bitumen with grace and ease. The metre-eaters as my friend would say.
Then, in the pack of serious runners close behind, we spotted our first naked people.
The man was starkers and the woman (being liberated but not irrational) wore a sports bra. If you’re in it to win it the bounce factor is not an option.
Everyone got excited and a guy running past yelled out “What? Haven’t you ever seen a naked person before?”
Well if you hadn’t, today was your day! We stopped counting at 50.
All sorts of bodies came by completely bare. There was a great contingent of proud older men, most with penis rings or decorated headwear. There was a definite salute to San Fran’s gay community and gay and lesbian rights movement.
There were rainbow flags, groups of 15 people joined as caterpillars by ropes, a guy dressed as a soccer goal -who people kept tripping over, a bunch of men dressed as cheerleaders, some face-painted terrorists in camouflage underpants, a set of tetris blocks, bedazzled breasts and beaded chests, President Obama, a guy juggling as he ran, Spongebob Squarepants, lots of burgers, skeletons, zombies, a giant upside down letter R, the Goldengate Bridge, and…my favourite, a strip of bacon and his mate holding a pancake pourer, as shake and bake.
It was a parade of the weird and wonderful, and made me love the city more.
Every now and then a serious runner would pass; eyes straight ahead, dodging naked butts and Mr Potato Heads.
Good on all who bared all. That is what living in a liberal city is all about.
On the train I talked to two San Fran cops to get the measure of the place. I’d heard the cops here were pretty violent, but these two were exceptionally nice.
“We don’t have much trouble on the Breakers day,” the male cop told me.
“Usually we just ask people to put their clothes back on afterwards, but it’s not really a problem.”
He was from New York City and told me it had changed a lot since the 9/11 attack, with cameras virtually everywhere in the centre.
“What are the cops in Australia like?” they asked me.
Hmm…how to answer that one!
On the whole good, I told them. Some have power trips like bouncers, but in my experience mostly good.
Hats off to them I reckon. I wouldn’t have the patience.
We got off at Castro , a neighbourhood with a large gay community and great cafes. A guy returning home from the morning’s race walked past completely starkers and a bum yelled at him.
A bum yelling at a bum.
The subway station had a plaque dedicated to Harvey Milk, the famous gay politician who had secured important rights in San Francisco. An enormous rainbow flag flew against the blue sky, and well-dressed people walking niche breeds of dogs stopped to chat on their door stoops or at shop fronts.
The next day, and this simply must be included, we saw some shit go down. Literally.
We were waiting with the business crowd to catch a morning bus. Everyone was respectable, freshly scrubbed and in their day’s attire. My friend was telling me a story when over her shoulder I caught sight of….
A homeless woman had dropped her pants and was leaning her bum up against what looked like a bus stop. It was actually a donga that housed a flower shop, which had not yet opened for the morning. The poor florist when she arrived for work that day!
To my disgust she began to urinate. She dropped a tissue in it and picked it up. A man stopped walking, leaned on his walking stick and stared in disgust at the event.
Then she defecated. It made me feel sick.
She was clearly living on the streets, and when she had finished a homeless man wandered over and urinated in the same spot.
It was unexpected, gross and confronting.
As always though it was a pointed reminded about the seeming class gap in the city.
To get to the point that you would do that without a care in the middle of the morning peak hour, I don’t know if many of us can appreciate her circumstances til we’ve been there.
See my earlier post for a link to a great article written on San Fran’s homeless population and attitudes towards it.
The middle class people and I boarded the bus.
I wondered if she had some cardboard to block the cold sidewalk from seeping into her bones that night.