Shuffled

December 10, 1:37 AM

That’s it, past-gone. Sub ratri, Mickie D’s. I bid my farewell to this gloomy town.

Monitor flashes 00:56. Four minutes left in this occupation, and it fits well that it is utterly anticlimactic. It’s too silent that night, and I’m thinking of family and friends around the world, about the people who really give a damn, the people I give a damn about. I say my goodbyes, give up the outfits, gift my shoes to the kitchenhand, and set off into the humid night.

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Bicycle was stolen the day before, so I’m walking home along the Broome Road, jumping over every shadow thinking it could be a croc. Feels like a culmination of all those somber walks I’d had in Adelaide and elsewhere. So much walking and thinking and hoping. Stars shining above, tangerine lightning in the distance. The runway is illuminated with so many tiny lights. A plane takes off, I see it hovering in the air. This sleep-deprived mind finds a transcendent definition behind the otherwise simple statement of “the plane is up there, while it was once down here.”

Feels as if I’m walking into a graduated self, stepping out of an old skin. Thinking of what I am, and there is for the first time in a long time, no echoing retorts, no second-guessing resonation from some agitated member of my soul. Walking down the centre of the black highway with arms outstretched, singing one of the usual songs, “I’m goin’ down where nobody knows me, ain’t nobody gonna know me.”

It’s that moment of liberation that I’ve wanted so badly since last December, and this time it really does feel like ages have passed, like a prison sentence finally over. What I’ve learned about personal finance and the value of things in this world, well, that’s the most valuable thing I’m taking with me from this red savannah. That and about twelve grand, a Macbook Pro, and more or less the same set of clothing I landed here with.

I suppose the true impact of this trip will be revealed to me with time. I’ll grow in Asia, but that growth will be from the compost of this Australian grind. If I’ve developed any trait from this particular year, it’s grit. Genuine grit. So here we are, Old Red’s had a good wash, Lil’ Red the 2nd is ready for her first big adventure, Inignot’s got a new line of wisdom under the visor – “No matter what happens, be honest with yourself.” On the road and we’re sinkin’ slowly.

No sleep all night. I lay, stand, sit, read until the sun is up and parrots are chirping up in the sky. I do my jump rope for the day and make a pilgrimage to the top of the tilled up land barrier across the street, overlooking some sort of disappointing industrial field next to the airstrip. That evening, before Sam gives me a ride to the terminal, I wander toward that unfinished building next to a couple of random warehouses, probably property of the airport. I find a shaded place in the sun-cracked red dirt, a sewage pit behind me, some kangaroo tracks a few meters off and two roads diverging in the broadleaf forest. For the record, I chose neither paths, instead took the well-trodden path the hell out of that industrial wart.

I chose that spot to toss these burdensome bicycle lock combination spinners. Time to release. One for Adelaide, julé. Another for Perth, say julé. Final one for Broome and julé. Past-gone.

An acquaintance and I have a beer before he sees me off. I’m probably the only person he’d buy a beer for in this town, and it was good to take off on a high note. The buzz helps me to tolerate my ridiculous appearance — to avoid a potential clash with customs over my carry-on, I’ve shed 4kg by wearing every article of clothing that I own. That’s 5 pairs of boxers, 3 pairs of socks, hiking boots, four shirts, shorts, pants, jacket, and pockets loaded with whatever’s heavy and pocket-sized. By some miracle, they don’t even flinch at my bag when I pass on through customs. Just to be safe, I wear all that shit until the seatbelt sign goes cold a few thousand meters up in the air.

December 11

The sun is already set to rest by the time I’m up there. Surprised by the serpentine contours of the coastline, as if it were a great open-pit mine. Hell, it could be. We’re more or less in mining country in the southern Kimberly. That iconic turquoise blue fades into an abysmal pitch colour, and the earth blends into the skyline, a if there is really no boundary at all.

Isabel and Oskar the Viking pick me up about a quarter-hour later at International, sliding open the door to an unmarked white van that screams “backpackah”. I’m instructed to lay up on the bed as flat as the linens to hide from all the cops that suddenly seem to be at every corner and tailing us at every traffic light.

DSC02645.JPGWe hit China Town since it’s the only place that’s happening on a Wednesday night. There’s a little walkway called Roe Street dedicated to restaurants, where we pick a place with good clientele — “Uncle Billy’s Chinese Restaurant”. The atmosphere of the place is swallowed up by a big group of twenty-somethings having a Christmas party. I think out loud that one of them will wake up in bed next to Santa Claus tomorrow morning.

We decide to keep with the Chinese custom and order three dishes to share as a group. A pot of tea to start us off as we chat about Isabel’s adventures in Mongolia, minced pork and eggplant claypot, sizzling satay chicken, and shredded duck with pickled vegetable ride noodle soup. None of us have the gut to finish all of it — a proper Chinese banquet. We linger a bit longer and I have time to absorb some of the heated conversation going on behind us between a few casually dressed businessmen, maybe in their early 30s. One man seems to dominate the conversation. Something about recovering from a decade of opium addiction only to find in the middle of rehab that his sister’d been murdered, stabbed 47 times with a fishing knife.

We split the bill into 20s and wander deeper into Northbridge, spend another hour in a now anonymous restaurant-bar, she orders a mixer, he enjoys a goblet of Guinness, I find my ceremonial whisky on the rocks. This time it’s the world-class Johnnie Walker Red Label.

We’re all tired and call it quits, on the way to the van absorbing a drunken Perth boy with a white tank top and green baseball cap somewhat accentuating his baby-bald head. He’s in quite a brash mood after reorienting a fallen bicycle rather than collapsing into it. After some interrogation he annoys Oskar, “You’re from Sweden! Can you make beer?”

“No, actually.”

Followed by “Oh” and a silence that seems to reveal a partial implosion of our interlocutor’s worldview. But his true epiphany comes only seconds later, “That’s your car? Aww you guys are backpackers?” This was enough to shuffle him away. Just another backpacker.

My comrades cheer me on and I wish them the best of luck, then it’s another six hours in that airport. I manage to catch some sleep on the first floor of International, using Old Red as a pillow atop some benches lacking arm rests. I wake up around 6:20 AM with a total sense of having lost something. After some shuffling around, everything seems to be intact. I wash up and go through customs, getting away with breaking the 7kg limit a second time.

Dec 12

The second plane ride is when the sleep deprivation really kicks in. No way to get comfortable. I share the trip with Alex and Pip. Juniors at UWA, business law and mechanical engineering, respectively. They’re a postcard couple. Pip grew up in Tanzania. On a whim, ask him if he knows Charlotte, who’s dad owns a chicken factory out that way. Nah, no connection. But they’re on their way to Bali for a holiday, seem pretty stoked to be off the family leash for a while. These two have marriage and three kids written on their foreheads.

Denpasar, Bali. I move through the airport in a dream state. Enormous room full of columns, clusters of women in saris rushing by. The area makes me think of something ancient and regal, stripped of its extravagance and replaced with tinfoil modern art and a cedar-red carpet. I go astray, to a corner where a sign reads “transfers”, but all I find is an empty kiosk and a hidden shrine to Krishna and Garuda. A security guard breaks up my encounter with the ferocious deity, leads me to the proper customs area where I’m issued an unexpected ten day visa exemption.

DSC02661Oh yes, the familiar feeling of entering the airport courtyard of a developing country. I’m immediately swallowed up by a dozen hagglers in blue suits and cheap semi-formal button-up shirts, trying every usual trick to con me into the backseat of a taxi I didn’t prepay for or otherwise would never spend so much for if I were any more knowledgeable than the last young-looking caucasian sap with a bulging backpack on his shoulders to stumble out of that airport, likely with a stupefied and sleep-deprived look on his face.

One of them follows me all the way to the edge of the highway, flashing his hotel badge. I’m contemplating a concrete lot full of motorbikes behind a tall barbed wire fence when he reaches the “guilt” stage, asking me why I even came to Bali if I don’t like his country. Phew.

I ward the bugger off and manage to get some info from the staff in a money changing station, collect place names and distances to here and there. Town’s too far out, I opt to stay put at the airport. I notice that the people here aren’t that fluent in English, clearing up at least one of my misconceptions about Bali. Most of the staff respond to all of my questions with a friendly “Yes”.

DSC02657I drop a $5 fee to convert a crisp INR 10,000 note, which translates into roughly USD $8, then grab a feed at a restaurant by the name “Muhibbah”. My lunch is “chick foo chok hor fun”, which I think translates roughly to “soup, egg, spinach, tofu, pepper, and other stuff you dumb foreigners don’t know about”. One of the hawkers is watching me from the corner of his eye from outside the restaurant, like a pigeon waiting for someone to drop sandwich crumbs. Or maybe he’s still amused that I took his name badge earlier, pinned it to myself and asked him if he needed a taxi.

I climb to the top floor and look around the courtyard, can’t see much farther. Uninteresting overcast today. Didn’t bother to check the weather conditions of any of these places I’d be traveling to. Perth was chilly, Denpasar is pleasantly warm with low humidity even past 1 PM. Above is a wavy rooftop, and on my level are glass-domed pedestrian bridges connecting to the car park. There are brick-red and white decorated archways separating the courtyard with the rest of Denpasar, which were constructed with Balinese architectural elements — expanding cloud-like wisps that seem to reach for something that transcends physical boundaries. In Bali, gateways are respected.

I spend my remaining INR on some peanuts and a gift of jasmine incense for Heidi. As I pass again through customs, I think of an article I read a couple of weeks back about the future of the travel industry, about how airports were becoming destinations in and of themselves. Ultra-modern shrines to consumerism and hedonism on one end, a Herculean commitment to international connection, integration, and cooperation on the other.

My last thought in Bali had something to do with an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt of Eve picking the forbidden fruit and in bold Helvetica font somewhere it would say “Bite me”.

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