Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The beauty of travelling

The beauty of travelling is that one minute you can be sitting around on a filthy, smelly couch doing nothing, feeling isolated and alone on Australia Day and not wanting to have anything to do with the yobbos downstairs, feeling so low and depressed that the suicide thoughts start creeping into your mind like Nazis on the Night of the Long Knives,and the next minute you're getting high in a hostel room with a gorgeous Argentinian girl, laughing yourselves stupid because neither of you can understand what the other one is saying.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Driving buses and being an arsehole: when two vocations combine.

Another exhausting travelful day for me today. Went from Liverpool to Hammersmith in London, with a few stops along the way in Birmingham and at Heathrow. Devoid of an alarm clock, my body had to figure out for itself what time to get up to make the 9 o'clock bus from Liverpool, which it did nicely. I walked it to the bus - a bit of a challenge with upwards of 30kg in your bags - and it was especially grueling given the rain.

Made it there no problem, and rode out the day, sleeping a few hours here and there, reading, and just gazing at the uniform brown towns. Surely they were all manufactured in one place and shipped out to be assembled across the landscape.

Leaving Heathrow at 16:25 is where the trouble began. I guess my guard was down. After the kindly gentleman bus driver who took me from Liverpool airport to my hostel when I didn't have enough for bus fare, and the jolly jesting fat man who took me from Liverpool to Birmingham, I was starting to get used to all the friendliness.

So I approached my bus and showed the guy my ticket. He looks at it in disgust, looks at me and says something lie "Hammersmith? You must be joking." I start thinking maybe I have the wrong bus, but apparently my confusion didn't show. The guy went on about it being Friday and the traffic would be a nightmare. I shrugged and got on the bus and sat up front, right behind him. As we drove, he starts shaking his head and muttering to himself. When we get to the turn off for Hammersmith I could see why: the traffic was backed up as for ages. The coach driver, frustrated, hits the gear stick, turns around and points in my face and says "See?" I said I did see. Then he starts blaming me, for the fact that the almost full bus will be late for its arrival in Central London.

I'm not angry, or sheepish or embarrassed or anything at all really. It occurs to me that this jerk is asking for it, but I stayed cool. Didn't want an escalating situation or anything. As we're sitting in the traffic he asks me if I know my way around Hammersmith. At this point he's thinking of getting me off the bus now, so he can get back in the main lane and head in. I say no, that I've never even been in London before. Apparently with my new attire I'm not so obviously a tourist. The guy is incredulous. He asks me if someone is picking me up or if I know where I'm going. I smile and say I have no idea, even though I do. This enrages him further. He's mentally swearing and driving like a sooky toddler.

How long did we end up sitting in the traffic? About 5 minutes. Yep. 5 minutes. And when we got to Hammersmith, 3 other people got off the bus with me, whereas he had me thinking I was the only one. What an arsehole.

So I wandered the streets lost. I had directions from Google Maps but they were inaccurate, and I hadn't written down the hostels address. This always happens to me these days. As I was walking I started thinking about how I've come a long way from the scared kid that Chris would have seen at the O'Hare airport. I wandered a strange city without a clue but I wasn't worried for a second. I ended up walking right past the hostel (St. Christopher's Inn), kept on going and hit another St. Christopher's Inn in the next suburb over. The girls told me which bus to get on to get back to Hammersmith but I didn't use it. I walked straight back and found it easy.

I must have walked over 2kms today with all that heavy gear, in bad weather, tired and hungry, having subsisted only on bus station sandwiches all day. And lost. But not a worry in the world. I've finally done it. I'm not afraid anymore. I don't worry about anything until it's right in front of me and I'm a million times happier for it.

Monday, 19 January 2009

On praise and encouragement

One of the things I've found strange is the acceptance I get if I tell people about my writing aspirations. Back in Perth I wouldn't dare tell anyone I didn't know about it. Somehow it seemed like something to be ashamed of back there. It probably isn't. Maybe I was always just too shy before and traveling has opened me up enough, given me enough confidence to just be me.

Still, I'm sure if I did say such a thing in Perth, I'm sure it wouldn't get the same reaction there as it gets over here. In Perth I imagine a person mumbling: "cool" as the best reaction I could hope for. Not that I think people in Perth are any more indifferent than other folk, I just think it surfaces in different ways from place to place.

In any case, people in this hemisphere seem genuinely interested, even excited at the prospect of a wannabe writer. Some express wonderment, wishing they had it in them to do the same, or something similarly creative. The relations took this to a new level. They really took things to heart, took me to all these Irish writer places (restaurants, pubs, etc) and got it into their heads that I'd be writing about them in someway. Some of them had similar interests and wished me luck, telling me not to miss my chances like they had.

It's all a bit overwhelming. In other cases I might have felt it appropriate to remind myself not to get a big head with all this praise around, but I'm not really in any danger of that. I've been so down about myself and my uncertain future for so long, that all this encouragement is kind of exactly what I need to get myself moving in the right direction.

I have to wonder though at the impression I make on people. I'm a quiet guy. Friendly enough, but not too friendly. Open to those around him, but not one to actively seek out others. I wonder what I'm projecting in my appearance and demeanor. I mention this because the other night I was in a pub somewhere in Galway, probably Fibber Magees (and boy would I like a penny for every time I've been inside a Fibber Magees!), and my cousin Gareth introduced me to a friend of his. The name eludes me now, but he was an older chap, a professor at the local university and a bit of a character. I think his accent was English, but I was pretty drunk at the time, so I could be mistaken.

He was quite a talker, and he spoke at length about soccer with Gareth, and rambled on about a lot of other things too. We exchanged pleasantries and spoke a little when Gareth was in the bathroom. He ribbed me for looking like such a student, wearing a scarf in a pub. Made a mental note of that one. In any case, we didn't know all that much about each other, and as the night progressed we both became increasingly smashed. At some point he asked me what I studied and as I answered Gareth chimed in that I was trying to write a novel.

The old man was in to it. He starts going on about how he can tell I'm a smart guy and that I have it in me, and all this stuff. Maybe it was drunk talk, but it's something I've been hearing a lot lately. It kind of scares me because I really don't consider myself to be all that smart, or all that capable. Then he starts telling me to send him the manuscript when it's done and he has contacts and he'll let me know if it's good or not and he can hook me up with other university and publishing contacts.

Now, that's a lot to process. Who do people think I am? And am I that person?

Accent confusion in the Northern hemisphere

There was a time where I entertained the notion of putting on different accents as I traveled the world, seeing if I could pass myself off as a local, or as a traveler from somewhere else entirely. As it turns out, my regular accent can be just as confounding. Back when I was Stateside, most people I spoke to couldn't tell where I was from, on the streets or in the hostels, and I'm finding it much the same in Ireland.

Most commonly I am mistaken for being from a posh area of England. I'm starting to think that maybe I do, because the people that have said it are fairly reliable types: relatives in Letterkenny, and some of the smarter people I met in America, like James.

In America I was surprised that some people would ask me which State I was from. In that situation I would usually affect the appropriate accent and say "I am from Minnesota" which occasionally received a laugh, but was once or twice taken to be fact.

On occasion people have thought I was from New Zealand. Apparently that's a common mix up around this part of the world, but I would have thought the differences were pretty full-on. Kiwi's sound closer to South Africans then Aussies in my opinion.

On that note, sometimes Australians don't even know I'm Australian. Now this might be partially because I am subconsciously altering my voice to avoid dealing with me fellow countrymen. Most of the time I try not to even speak when I'm around Australians and just let them assume I'm some standoffish non-English speaker from somewhere nera the Mediterranean.

It's not always bad. I generally have an affinity with Melbournians. They get it. And they can almost always tell where I'm from. As for the rest of the Australians, I generally try to stay away. Last night a group of American girls who have recently started studying in Cork took me for a Dubliner. When I told them I was from Perth they told me that there was a couple from Perth staying in our room. Naturally I was later forced to interact with these people and that was a mistake. Everyone else I've met from Perth has been terrifying in some way. This time the 'Perth' label was something of a misnomer. They weren't from Perth, they were country folk that now lived in Perth. You know how it is with country folk. It's one way or the other, and this time it was the other.

It's all part of a collage of cultural confusion. I'm doing everything backwards and mixed up. In America I was reading European writers and now I'm reading all the Americans. In the States I mixed mostly with Brits and French, now I'm surrounded by Americans. Strangely enough all the Americans I've met here seem a lot less crazy / more normal then a lot of the people I met in the US. I don't know if that's a case of travelers having a certain mindset that can be easily related to, or if it's just that a whole country full of Americans was a little intimidating at the time.

In any case I feel like I've been hitting the right balance of people. In America it wasn't always easy to talk to locals, and I usually kept to the hostel crowds. In Ireland though the hostel crowds contain so many diverse characters that are local, as well as the usual mix of foreigners.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

My tips for anyone who goes to the United States

Before I left Perth I tried to get as much advice and information I could out of everyone I know who has traveled, and didn't get much out of them other than the usual stuff about being safe, keeping your wallet protected, etc. Now that I'm a man of the world I feel it's my duty to give prospective travelers a few clues you can use if you come to the good ol' US of A.

1. Always keep in mind that the word 'Starbucks' is actually code for 'public bathroom'.

I can't stress this enough people. The coffee is dreadful, and they're more numerous than rabbit offspring, but you'll be thanking your lucky stars for Starbucks when you've got a bladder full of soda, which will be all the time considering you're in America.

2. When ordering fast food, always ask for the small size.

When the food arrives, you will realize you actually have a large. Get used to it. And throw away the rest of your soda / give it to a homeless person. No body needs to drink that much in one sitting.

3. At traffic lights, ignore the crosswalk lights and just cross when it's safe.

This is one of those things that makes you look less like a tourist. Too many people stand around waiting for the 'walk' sign, and it can really clog the sidewalks in a big city. Just always be aware of your surroundings and get a move on. Sure it's technically jaywalking, but all the cool people do it.

4. Walk fast and be nimble.

This is another important one in big cities, especially New York. You'll get around faster, and you'll piss off less people. Also, you'll look less like a tourist. Which brings me to a related point:

5. If you get lost, keep walking.

Don't even break stride. Nothing is more infuriating then when people stop suddenly to check a map, blocking everyone behind them. You really don't want to look lost. Most places are pretty safe, but you never know. Try to keep walking and get indoors, perhaps at a local 'public bathroom' to check a map or change directions.

6. If you're young, always claim student prices wherever you can.

This has saved me so much money. Most museums and art galleries are half price for students, so you can really save those pennies. I used my expired UWA card whenever asked (it's not dated, and they never checked the guild stickers on the back). But seriously, 9/10 times they don't even card you.

Well, that's all for now. Perhaps more will come to me later. Adios.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

One of those moments that make you glad not to be an idiot.

Another thing about my day at MoMa. At one spot they had a collection of the gallery's works selected and organised by one Vik Muniz. It looks like they regularly have an exhibit where an artist selects works according to a certain theme. This one was called Rebus and its mission statement was a quote from Albert Einstein:

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.

The start of the exhibit was a quite long film of one massive Rube Goldberg machine. For those who haven't heard the term before, a Rube Goldberg machine is basically where you use a chain reaction of needlessly complex mechanisms to perform a simple task. Some of you might remember an example of this from the Honda Accord commercial.

Anyway, it was massively packed in that spot. People were crowding in to see it, exclaiming there enjoyment of it, and laughing aloud at some of the crazier things that were happening on the screen. People were glued to this fucking thing, and it just went on and on. And they were all LOVING it. Having the time of their lives. Sitting down with the kids, talking about how good it was. And everyone was staying for the whole thing! I didn't watch it all but it had to have been longer than 10 minutes, and most people walk past any film exhibit longer than a minute.

As I watched these people, I noticed that a lot of them didn't even look at the rest of the exhibit, and in fact almost none of them stopped to read the explanation accompanying the film (and setting up the tone for the whole exhibit.) I did read it, and when I did, I felt glad for the first time in a few days. I felt glad to be me.

Here is an excerpt of what it said:

The human brain responds directly to the eye's inability to process all the visual elements of a scene instantaneously. As our eyes move from one point to another, they create a continuous narrative that is perceived by the brain as a seamless whole. I have often contended that human consciousness emerged from the growing complexity of such optical narratives and our penchant for interacting with the world through cause-and-effect models, graphs and timelines. The pleasure we derive from Rube Goldberg machines and rows of falling dominoes is an echo of one of our most primitive perceptual handicaps. Attention is what enables us to capture a managable vision of the world, by allowing us to ignore its natural complexity.

I thought that was such a fascinating thing to read and to ponder about, and hardly anyone bothered to read it. They just sat there living it, and not paying attention. I'm glad I can enjoy this sort of thing, and I'm glad I'm not one of the many people who cruise through exhibits (and life) without paying attention to what's around them. I'm glad the art got me thinking about the artists intent, and about the human condition, instead of just mindlessly enjoying Rube Goldberg machine footage.

MoMa and my growing discontent with society.

Today I went to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa).

Let me first set the scene though. I was not in a good mood. Last night I went out drinking with Nathan, and English guy I met in the hostel. I had a good time with him at a nearby bar, but I was still in the foul mood I've been in since New Year's Eve. After returning to the hostel, I got on the internet and said a lot of drunk angry shit to a few people.

I should never drink when I'm in a bad mood.

Anyway, I woke up feeling fine physically, but still angry as hell at the world, and even angrier at myself for some of the things I said last night. And for a few other reasons which we won't get into here.

So, it was with this mindset that I headed to MoMa. I left at about 10.30 in the morning and arrived to find a huge line outside the building. This didn't surprise me. Lines are a fact of life here. It didn't take long to get in though, which was a welcome change. Once I got inside, I managed to power through the whole place in only a couple of hours. Usually museums and art galleries are an all day thing for me, but not today. I'll explain why in a moment.

MoMa was okay. Just okay. I didn't think it was anywhere near as good as The Met. I was a bit bummed because the Vincent Van Gogh section was sold out for the day. I really have taken a liking to Van Gogh lately. Actually seeing those works for real is incredible. Photos can't do them justice. I was also disappointed to find that The Persistence of Memory was out on loan. Two anticipated highlights were knocked out already.

So I saw some art and all that. Took a few pictures. But after only about 15 minutes in there I started getting edgy. There was just so many people, bumping into each other, getting in the way. Pausing in doorways, not keeping right, not paying attention. I think I've reached my breaking point with crowds. I hurried from floor to floor, just wanting to get things over with before I started punching people's kids. It was that bad.

I love this city, but I can't do this tourist shit anymore. Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds are killing me.

Reflections on a failed New Year's Eve

I haven't had a great start to 2009. It all started on New Year's Eve, where I attempted to go to Times Square, had an awesome spot, but couldn't handle the cold or the lack of a bathroom and left. As Aaron put it, "the ball dropped prematurely" on that night, for me at least. It's taken me a few days to collect my thoughts on that night. I've been trying to write about it since I got back to the hostel that night, but I just haven't been able to get my head right about it all yet.

I feel pretty down about it, but I don't really know why. I don't think I should feel bad at all, but I do. Personally I think my decision to leave was an important one. I was freezing, my clothes weren't up to it at all and I would have been in a lot of trouble if I stayed. As I left I got really dizzy and faint. My eyes had swollen up from the cold, and were totally red. It looked like I had been crying for hours. I feel like deciding not to freeze to death was a good way to start the New Year. And I felt like deciding to leave, to give up on this stubborn attitude I always have about sticking it out for things, was important as well. I know it would have been amazing to have been there for the big finale, but why was I there? Was it for me, or was it for the checklist? For me to have something to tell everyone back home?

I wasn't having a good time at all. I was an ice-block. My pen was filled with guys, couples, old people and slutty teenage girls, so staying for a kiss was out of the question. So what else was there? I was freezing to death to see a big ball move down a pole and a whole bunch of confetti fly everywhere. I must have been crazy.

It took me a long time to come to the decision to leave though. I got there at 2pm, and left about 6.30 or 7. It snowed for a good portion of that time. There really is no feeling in the world like snow hitting you in the eyeballs. I can only describe it as being like crying in reverse. I met a nice Dutch couple while I was there and we hung out for awhile. They gave me a cigarette and a banana. I was grateful for both. Bananas are quite filling, and the cigarette actually warmed me up some. I think that probably counts as my first real cigarette.

Lionel Richie also helped me stay a bit longer. He performed three songs, stopped, waited 45 minutes and then played those same three songs again. The entertainment there was well fucked, I might add. Unorganised and horribly intermittent. In any case, I never thought I would ever be so happy to see Lionel. For those brief minutes everyone sang and danced some warmth into themselves.

The turning point for me was when I witnessed a young American couple fighting. She must have been complaining about the cold or something, and he was just letting her have it. He kept saying how she always has to get her way 99% of the time and how much of a pain in the ass she is.
You said you wanted to come to New York for New Year, and here we are. You always get your way, all the time. I'd much rather be on my couch with my family in Rhode Island, but no. We had to come here so you could get your way.
It went on like that. He was being pretty harsh I thought, and she wasn't saying anything. I wondered how on earth those two people could stay together if that's how he talks to her. Then again I guess I've had some pretty vicious fights with lovers too. In any case, seeing that fight, the way the cold was making people crazy, and the logic of this guy who just wanted to be on his couch in Rhode Island got to me. I got the hell out of there.

It was a long and lonely walk 60 or so blocks home. I had to take awkward routes because of all the road closures. I jogged in the park for a while to try and get some feeling back into my limbs. I ended up getting back here, going on the computer for awhile and eventually getting to bed shortly after midnight, having totally ignored the countdown.

I was in the room on the laptop for awhile when this black guy, drunk as Mel Gibson comes in, climbs shakily in to his bunk and collapses. A few minutes later he starts vomiting uncontrollably for ages. I didn't even realise he was vomiting at first. It was all liquid. So much so that it sounded more like gargling than vomit. So he chucked all over himself and his bed. Later he started getting all emotional and apologising to me. Then he passed out again.

He continued vomiting throughout the night, and at one point vomited over the side of the bed (top bunk). It went everywhere. I just kept sleeping though. I didn't care.

I guess some people had it worse off than I did that night.

Fuck this hostel for a joke.

If it wasn't bad enough with the snoring, the loudness, the inconsiderateness of other guests, number of beds to a room (14), the projectile vomiting off of the top bunk (yes, one guy caught the splash-back), the shortage of power points, the shortage of towels, the loudness of the music in the common areas, the closing off of the basement lounge and filling it with beds so as to make more money over the New Year period, the dictatorial staff who won't let you hang around the common area at night, the awful breakfast served way too early in the morning, the decision to paint all of the bathrooms in the building at the same time except for the one on my floor and the general overpricing, now these fuckers are charging people 25c for an EMPTY FUCKING CUP.


Fuck off.