A moment lived in Australia by Ben, a traveller from the USA
I’m sitting in a softly-lit, rustic- styled and aptly-named pub – Clay Pots – in St Kilda, Melbourne, VIC, AUS. I’m here alone, and there’s a pitcher of Czech Pils sitting on the bar in front of me. A dissonant but bouncy Eastern European Gypsy Folka sounding tune plays from a conspicuously out of place iMac behind the bar, and, to my left, a blonde woman in her late thirties and a long sequined skirt dances by herself. A model gondola paces slowly back and forth below the exposed wooden rafters above me, accompanied by a languid, mechanical whir. The smell of hot mulled wine hangs in the air, lending the already cozy atmosphere an intimately exotic thickness.
My general impression of “backpackers” (so en-quoted because of their apparent propensity to travel not with backpacks at all, but with multiple duffles or large, rolling suitcases packed with everything from hair dye to high heels to suit coats to chef’s knives (no, seriously)) in Australia is that they ultimately seem to do very little of anything at all, save for consume heroic amounts of cheap wine- self-consciously but appositely monikered “goon”- and smoke vast miniature armies of bone-white hand rolled cigarettes. How these listless legions fund their endeavors in such an outrageously expensive city I am sure I don’t know. Some of them do work- as laborers or dishwashers, waitresses or delivery people. But for the most part, they seem to be very preoccupied with the idea of looking for work, and very nonplussed with the project of finding it. This sort of psychological dissonance seems to manifest itself in their traveling itineraries as well, because when they do move around, and they occasionally do, they seem to drift from destination to destination, falling into ruts they can’t tell don’t dissolve with the changing scenery, drinking and partying their way through a foreign landscape they interact with and appreciate in ostensibly only the most fundamental and instrumental and necessary way. The morning hours at the hostel are the hours of the walking dead; they belong to the early workers, the hungover, the still drunk, and the rudely-awakened-in-a-public-space (these latter typically constituting a subcategory of ‘the still drunk’, it probably goes without saying).
The music has been changed by the dancing woman to a hiss- heavy and presumably ancient recording of a prayer-chanting Hindi guru. She ebbs and flows with herself, hands raised and twisted, feet occupied in an opiated rhythmic shuffle that seems entirely unconcerned with the pace of her swaying hips. A very drunk old man holding a plastic liter bottle half full of what appears to be bourbon sticks his head in the door and, for a long captivating moment, rambles fast and drunk and incomprehensible about his love for music. His face withdraws into the night with the slam of a door and the light tinkle of a bell.
Which, if I’m being honest, is not to say that I’m doing too terribly much of anything at the moment either. I seem to have found myself caught in what may be the definitive post-capitalist tension:
that irresolvable place between needing to make money to travel and explore and be active, and on the other hand working tirelessly (ok, not tirelessly- I’m exhausted) to earn that money, and living like an ascetic to save that money, and so but then having very little time or energy to actually enjoy the money that I’m working so hard to make, and ultimately finding myself feeling very conflicted and depressed by the whole arrangement, which arrangement is of course entirely of my own design and more or less the purpose of my visit to Australia- to earn more travel money, that is-, because, when it comes down to it, what am I doing here if I’m not willing to spend the time and the money to explore this new continent and all that it has to offer? I am all too aware of my historical propensity to just sort of put my head down and bull through all sorts of existential-and-work-induced miseries for some distant and long-delayed financial red cape of a reward, a reprieve at the end of the gauntlet; after all, that’s how I funded my trip from Portland to Asia. I worked my ass off for the better part of nine difficult months to afford my escape- and it was in no uncertain terms an escape-, which of course also then leant a serious psychological fuel to my flight. I wrote before I left that I had a clear idea at the time of what it was I was escaping from, but not what it was I was escaping to. That seems to have changed. I now no longer have an idea of what it is I’m escaping from, either. I only know that it is shadowy and persistent and likely intrinsic to myself. It’s like I’m running through the dark in a dream- chased by something unknown but presumably insidious, running towards something unseen but hopefully sheltered, and burdened by the extreme heaviness of limb and viscosity of time that are hallmarks of dream-panic-flight.
I empty the pitcher into my glass. The dancing woman laughs with a stout drunken man in a leather coat and bowler, his slurred Australian accent lending to his ruddy complexion and jowly rictus a sense of cartoonish vivacity- of his being an over-enthusiastically manifested caricature of himself. His hand alights for a brief, pregnant moment on the woman’s hip, and then he’s off, stumbling out the door waving his leather hat behind him as if to clear the air of his presence before he’s swallowed up by the night. The bartender, a young, black, Frenchman named Pascal, interrupts the chanting Hindi, cutting the tape-hiss of static and replacing it with the warm vinyl crack and pop of an old Mississippi blues recording, and now suddenly the old southern black uncle I’ve never had is sitting in a kitchen I’ve never seen, playing a torpid delta guitar over the sound of bacon and eggs frying on the stove under an open window. The sun is shining. I’m pretty sure there’s pie.