You want ping pong show?". Unbelievable. It had just been an hour since we had arrived from the airport and already we were being touted for shows. The streets were buzzing with activity, the smell of spicy cooking food in street stalls, the stench of sewage, the street stalls selling the latest fake produce, people stopping you in the street offering you taxi's. hotels and the chance to meat the 'locals'. This sounded all too familiar.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Think of Thailand, you think of Ladyboys. Well not all the time I hope. Alan Partridge loved to talk about them, so I would have to investigate this phenomena. The search for our first ladyboy ended after just one hour and twenty minutes in Bangkok. Seventy of those minutes had been in a taxi. The overpriced journey stopped at
Khoa San Road, the backpacking mecca of Bangkok. The heat and stench of sewage was the first hit, the buzz of activity was the second. "You want taxi?" shouted one, "you need place to stay?" cried the other in half broken English. This street was laden with Market stools selling the latest fakes showing the biggest names. Mobile cooking stalls were offset from the road - cooking pieces of raw meat and noodles. This combined with the smell of toilets provided a unique atmosphere in the humid heat. Ambient music drifted through the streets, the stall owners were trying to out do each other with their selection of fake cd's. And then we were surrounded. With one look they were friendly ladies. With a second and closer look they were indeed men. Indeed our pre-Thailand drills had kicked in. The 'adams apple', the slightly larger nose, the larger cheek bone structure. "You want see ping pong show" one said as the she he grabbed my arm. "Mâi ao khàp khun" I replied. I think finding accommodation was the priority.
Thailand for some unknown reason has a particularly high number of ladyboys, or Katoey to the locals. Strangely for a Buddhist country katoey's are in the main widely accepted in society, although secret prejudice prevails underneath. Most start their conversion young, taking female hormones in puberty. Only a few have the full sex change later. For a Thai growing up there is much greater allowance form parents in terms of gender. If you want to be a girl then be a girl - it seems school results are far more important. Parents sometimes actively encourage their sons to change gender. For the most part the children become the main bread winners in the family and with Westerners money it's far easier to earn being a woman
Illegal goods and street selling
I dug the pencil into her chest and twisted it. Maybe I would murder her children next. Of course not. But that was the look as I typed in one hundred baht on her calculator. It was her fault, she said "Put how much you want to pay". So I typed in a hundred baht. She wanted a thousand. As I walked away the voice came "Ok, ok you come back, One hundred and fifty baht". Again she gave me the look of mass murderer, which quickly converted to a broad smile once she had the money. Shopping in Thailand is actually interesting. It's not not like Saturday shopping where you trudge around for the afternoon thinking you have bought bargains only to then realise that they were half price because nobody else wanted them. Everything that is sold in Thailand is fake. From the unbranded CD player with a wonky Sony sign to the the copied CD's and DVD's for 100 baht. You can even buy Hugo Boos aftershave (if only they could spell it would have been convincing). This is a country expert in the art of producing fake goods
We walked into the Plantif Plaza, a shopping centre that had been recommended to us in Bangkok. As I walked past the first stall I was grabbed "You want sexy movie ah?" followed by "cheap software, in here, look!". Before me there was a row of seven other man further along grabbing peoples arms. This shopping centre had been raided three months ago following pressure from the U.S government. The raids normally happen every three months, more of a token gesture form the Thai government than an effective one. As a result the sellers have created 'secret rooms' behind mirrors and hidden doors. Once inside you appreciate the full extent of this trade. Thousands upon thousands of CD sleeves contain music from every artist you can think of. Another wall is filled with illegal pornography and hacked computer software. The CD's, DVD's and software cost about one pound thirty each. Once you have made your selection you asked to come back in ten minutes. For in this secret room there are no discs. A runner will go to the next secret building and create your shopping list.
Taking each day as it comes
Bang. There is a large crash outside. There is no fuss. No onlookers. Two motorbike riders have just collided. They get up from the road, inspect their damage and hobble off. Thailand is one of those places where you lay down at night and think- 'it's great to be alive'. Well it's more of a case of pinching yourself that you are still alive than some spiritual thought. Quite simply the chances of being killed in Thailand are bigger than Rik Waller. Eighty British people die in Thailand each year. Thirty of those are killed on the road. Two people die every hour on Thailand's roads, a figure which is increasing by a third every year. The Thai's drive on the left, on the right and in the middle of the road. They even make roads themselves to drive on. During the holiday season thirty percent of all drivers are drunk, sixty percent are drunk motorcycle drivers. Not surprisingly this increases the death rate to ten an hour.
The first of our newly purchased tours. Welcome to the world of minibus driving. Our van was full - the broken air conditioning was better than nothing - the windows were locked by a piece of string. It was our first time on the roads in Thailand and this provided some useful comparisons to back home. The U.K government wisely introduced law to discourage the use of mobile phones whilst driving with thirty pound fines. In Thailand the motorcyclists talk on their phone whilst a baby sits on one knee and a small child on the other. To balance the cycle they put their uncle and brother on the back seat as the thirteen bags of shopping balance on the front. If there was a law it probably states 'driving with your knees should be discouraged'. In the UK tail gating is a traffic offence. In Thailand it is seen as a waste of road space if you do not drive two centimeters behind the car in front. In fact it is considered friendly to drive so far up the car in fronts arse that you can you can check your watch with their dashboard clock. In the U.K you should stay to the left hand side of the road unless overtaking. Left hand side? What a waste. Over here they use any bit of concrete, gravel, grass or peoples front lawn to get past. Only overtake when it is a clear, safe and straight piece of road in front. Boring! Why not overtake up a hill, with a packed whining minibus round a blind corner with a truck approaching. Surely it's up to the truck to make way? Thankfully the truck used the bit of grass to his left this time.
A relief to be off the road. Surely the water transport is a lot safer. Well getting to the 'boat' is the first part. The jetty or bridges that you cross also double as a game of Russian Roulette. Depending on how well they have made the game every third or forth piece of wood is missing with a twenty foot drop underneath. To make it a bit more interesting they make the planks at an angle and and put a few rusty nails through the wood for you. Once you have passed the boardwalk game you play the game 'How many tourists can we put in a boat without it sinking'. The boat seemed to have been in the family for the last three generations - it looked familiar to the ones I had seen in the history books. "You man, you get to left to balance out" asked one of the 'crew'. He was right. The boat was leaning over so far that water was creeping in on one side. The hoards of Japanese women shrieked with terror. The ageing large man moved to the other side and the boat regained a semi-stable position. Relief. We had made it to the speedboat. The sign said '15 people max'. So they put on 32. "I'm not having this" one American woman cried. "The travel agent said there would be a maximum of fifteen people". Tourism is huge in Thailand, but maybe not tact. "It is not my problem lady, you either stay on or get off, it's your choice" replied the 'captain'. Using the men as weights they were shifted across the boat - splitting a large Arabic family in the process. So for the next seven hours we listened to this very loud dialect across the boat whilst sitting on strangers laps and hearing cries every time the boat leaned to one side. The man next to me was an extra in 'Gorillas in the mist' and the young girl on the other side of me thought it would far more interesting to spray me with her water bottle than drink from it. When we reached the islands, plastic canoes were used to ferry us across to the islands. We we dropped off at islands with no shade in the thirty four degree heat. Thankfully, and very kindly, they provided shade. At 200 baht. The stools were busy. "You come here, you don't have to buy, only look" came the voice of a hooded woman as she rushed to meet the boats. As you were turning away after realising that she was trying to sell you shell from the beach for 1000 baht she would grab you and say "You buy now, you must buy". Impressive selling techniques. We were allowed forty minutes on the beach then we would be whistled in Von Trap style. Each boat had a pattern of whistles to indicate time was up. We had seen the beach that was used in the filming of the 'Beach'. I looked long and hard but did not remember three hundred tourists, twenty canoes and fifteen markets stools in the film. It's amazing what they can do with film technology these days. I even saw the rock and beach they used for the film 'The Man with the Golden Gun' but sat there and wondered just how a plane could land in the water with so many boats littered around.
Thai Women and Western men
"Come back, come back pretty boy". You can not walk for more than twenty metres without a group of Thai girls screaming at you to visit their bar. If you stop to speak to the girls you find out why. The Western man, in particular those from England, provide an instant reaction. And it's not difficult to understand why. Lua is only twenty one but is the main bread winner in the family. For sa much as I used to earn in an hour, it takes her two days to equal the sum, working twelve hours a day in the process. Her family actively encourages her on a daily basis to meet as many Western men as possible in the hope that she will marry and in turn provide financial security for all of them. It is not just the financial aspect. "Thai men no good, lazy, no ambition, no hope" she murmurs as she looks into the distance. The one thing that hits you when you first come off the plane is the number of young Thai girls with Western men. The Thai women provide the Western men attention that they have never received in their homeland. I had heard of Thai brides before I came here - wrapped in a cover of Taboo. But that is only the start. You can pay for the company of a Thai girl for a day, a week or even a month. You can take them out for 200 baht (just over two pounds) or spend the night with them for a 1000 baht (around thirteen baht)There are no taboo's out here. It's the opposite of the Western world. As a man you get more attention and wolf whistles from a woman than a female does from a local male. It many ways you can start to understand how women feel when they walk past building sites.
It sure is. I am drinking from my ten pence bottle of water, listening to my fake one pound cd on my fake twenty pound cd player. The five star beach accommodation costs under ten pounds, you can stroll across the road for a five course meal for three pounds and then finish it off with a fifty pence bottle of chang beer. But is it all good? The low prices set you up for being targets of rip off merchants knowing full well they can get away with it. A six hundred baht taxi from the airport in reality costs two hundred baht but you justify with yourself that it is still cheap. You stay at luxury hotels, not hostels. For sure you can stay at a cheaper hotel - but the water is brown, the toilet never flushes and the cockroaches are changed daily. You can have a meal for as little as twenty pence on the street markets, but the flies always convince you otherwise. The clothes are cheap - one pound with buy you a fake but decent quality t-shirt. But with most things cheap - you always buy ten times the amount you actually need and spend just as much as you would have normally done.
The clever tourist trade
"Ah you see we now pray for the Buddhist monk, follow me and pray three times" the man in the temple said. There were thirteen candles burning away at the front and a golden Buddha sitting in front of us. It was a time of reflection. A time for thought. "Oh, by the way did you know CJ Parker has a massive sale on at the moment, only for tourists you know. You can buy a tailored suit from eight thousand baht". Great, a tourist temple. This had just completed the chain of the very impressive tourist technique used by the locals in Thailand. The whole process is carefully planned and very well executed. It works like this. You step out of your hotel and walk twenty yards. "Hello, where you from?". A local man had stopped us in the street. "How long have you been in Thailand?" would be the next line. For the next five minutes the conversation would suggest he is trying to help you. "Did you know there is a temple that the tourists can go in? Today is the only time of the year?". What a helpful man. After walking fifty metres by coincidence we would reach a tuk tuk. A tuk tuk is a motorized scooter that can seat three passengers (but normally carries more) - a cheap mans taxi. A taxi in which performs so many illegal road manoveurs that it makes you thankful that you are still alive when it stops. "This man can take you to the temple" he added. "Only 20 baht - special offer only today". Of course we felt so grateful that we could go to a free temple and only for a thirty pence ride. The tuk tuk driver was so helpful - he even waited for us whilst we were in the temple. After ten minutes in the religious tourist house we were off to C.J Parkers for our suit fitting - thanks to the helpful temple man and his advice. After purchasing our 13,000 baht suits the tuk tuk driver provided another piece of helpful advice. "For today only you can go to the tourist office for free". And so we left the tourist office after spending 8,000 baht on our two week trip. So the chain had been completed. For every suit C.J Parker sells the man in the temple earns 2000 baht commission with another 2000 baht going to the tuk tuk driver. Our first day in Thailand and our first lesson learned. Thai people are so friendly. For a reason.
"Do you think we give a rats arse if people complain? What they goiner do, kick us off our plane? Mate you don't know what we've been through recently, people don't understand. Look I've been on enough friggin flights to get enough air miles to London and back five times over, they never do you, they get a few complaints and thats it". He then slurred "Look what time is it, 10pm, yes 10 friggin pm, If these people go to bed at 7pm then it's their friggin problem not ours".
Great. I had managed to avoid the yellow vomiting screaming babies but had managed to sit next to the Kath and Kim family from Australia. "This is your captain speaking, please would I insist that passengers refrain from smoking in the toilets, it is dangerous and can attract a heavy fine in Singapore". There were serious of tuts from the passengers. "What great gala would do that Kerry?" came the response from the martini-induced man with a packet of Marlboro Lights half hanging from his shirt pocket. It was then that he turned and spoke to the middle passenger in his row, also highly intoxicated. As he leaned over his bottom went so close to my face that not only did I find out that he had a 35-34 dimension Levi 501 pair of jeans but the lower right stitching was slightly loose on his label. There was a moment of rest bite. After straddling her boyfriend for the last twenty minutes they both made it off to the toilets to get their mile high membership forms. Personally I have never been close to joining the club, mainly because I normally sit next to elderly women or fat sweaty men. However I can see the attraction and the secrecy of the event. Timing it perfectly not to arouse suspicion and departing at separate times whilst waiting for a clearing in the queue (I've noticed dinner time is by far the best).
This was obviously not the attraction for Mark and Kerry. "You bastard, what have you done with my bra" she shouted to rows 14-26 of the 737. It had been seven hours of this. Kerry had managed to turn her white top into a multi coloured one - by spilling Tia Maria, Rum and Coke and Baileys on herself throughout the flight. She had also sent the drink flying from the lady in front after diving on the seat in front whilst playing an Olympics game with her partner. They had managed to get at least ten rounds of drink from the young William who was walking the isles. "William, now we now know your name, you know you are so good at your job, you are just helpful". Clearly William did not drunken people from sober people. He supplied their drinks until six hours and thirty-two minutes into the flight - when three families complained from three rows back. I was sitting opposite but was too busy with a sense of enjoyment, cringing and thinking "She didn¡¯t just say what I thought she said did she" moments to ever consider saying anything.
By the time the SQ252 flight touched down at Changi Airport I felt I knew the family opposite better than the family themselves. At least I was heading to bed. The Kath and Kim family would be entertaining another lucky bunch of passengers for their thirteen-hour connecting flight to Heathrow.
The seven-hour flight severed my ties with Australia. It is a great country, it is laid back, it is clean, it is always sunny, the beaches are great, the transport far superior, it¡¯s easy to live in, there¡¯s always things to do, its relatively cheap, the people are witty and confident and generally there is not a bad thing you can say about it. Well maybe just one thing. Let me explain. There was an Englishman, an Irishman and an Australian sitting in a pub. Sitting across from them were three attractive girls. The Englishman and the Irishman discussed at length these three girls. Are the blokes with them just friends? Or could they be their brothers? They would look over and try and get their attention. So they decided on the Dutch courage approach. After eight pints, two vodka red bulls and tequila the Englishman got up. It was 2am. The girl walked out. The Englishman fell over. The Irishman had finished his twelve-pints of Guinness and stumbled across to the second girl. "Hallo, me names is Bryan, can I get yous a drink for the road?". "I'm sorry I can't understand you" came the reply. They had a conversation, well she nodded and he talked in a way that was meant to be English but sounded more foreign. She left after ten minutes after drinking her free vodka and orange. The third girl, well she was nowhere to be seen. She had left three hours previously with the Australian after he went straight up to her and said "Do you want a shag?". Yes it’s true.Australian men nick all the women. They just don’t care.they will walk up to couples and try and get the lady from under the noses of their partner. Annoying for anybody else they are incredibly good at it. Despite drinking from 10am that morning they always manage something witty or have an occupation that always sounds impressive. Did you hear him? He said he was a skipper on a boat! Wow. That’s how the girls normally react. Or Yeah you see girls I’ve just come from the bush after wrestling three crocodiles, saving a baby and breaking my leg, just popped in for a quick schooner. It is refreshing frustrating to see pulling tactics that aren’t pre-planned, pre meditated. They see what they want and they try to get it in the most direct way possible. Like their country they are not tied down by history, tradition or the notion that it’s been done like that for the last five hundreds years so we must do it that way now. As a result the country is refreshing cosmopolitan, uncomplicated, friendly and easier to live in than any place I have been to before. It makes you want to go back, it’s only twenty-three hours after all.
I managed to leave the airport and walk tall, well it's not that difficult when the population are all under five foot eight. I headed straight for the MRT - the new underground train system that had been impressive in implementation. "You want taxi, you want room" were the ignored pleas of the Touts. The Underground system showed all the modern touches I was expecting. You purchase a ticket from the machine and pay a one-dollar deposit that you get back when you insert the plastic back into the machine after use. You hover your ticket over the entrance machine and it reads your card automatically. You can choose to recharge your ticket, get back the dollar deposit or just through it away. The stations were clean bright and gleaming, large LCD screens displayed all the relevant information, and more, and the trains arrived no less than five minutes after your arrival.
I found my way to Little India and prepared myself for the thirty-minute culture shock. If you could block out the smells of rotting fish, abundant BO, rotting eggs and sewage then you could focus on the smells of spices, cooking food, joss ticks and trying to avoid getting run over as there were no pavements. I could understand the BO factor. I had been walking for ten minutes and already the heat had turned me into an unwanted competitor for a wet t-shirt competition. The sweat no only ran down my back but down my legs making my socks and trainers wet. That was probably why the transport was so good. You couldn¡¯t physically walk for more than a hundred metres. You also realise that you are in a true minority here.
The population consists of mainly Chinese and Indian. I counted one white person in three hours of my walk. The laws too are exceptionally clean to help keep the region keep exceptionally clean. If you drop your cigarette butt expect to pay a 1,000 dollar fine §¢ for first time offenders. Fancy chewing a bit of gum to get that smoke taste out of your mouth? Well the possession of chewing gum is illegal. My piece of chewing gum sits at the roof of my mouth just in case there any prying eyes. Fancy running across the street to get way from that butt you have just dropped whilst nervously chewing on that bit of gum? Stop! Walking across the street within 50 metres of the crossing attracts a 50 dollar fine. So you are so nervous about dropping that butt whilst crossing the street chewing that piece of gum that you must go to the toilet. But watch out! Make sure you flush all the evidence or it will cost you another 50 dollars in fines. Look, the best thing you can do is not panic, take a break. No! Loitering carried a 100 dollar fine. Ok maybe you should just sit down, smoke a joint and escape the stress. Well you would have to escape §¢ having 500g of Cannabis means the death penalty
The Inn Crowd
"Ah can I browse your CD's?" a distinct German voice asked. "Of course you can, but I'm leaving in an hour" I replied. "Oh that's ok then, so where have you come from" he enquired. "Well I have just come from Changi Prison today" I responded. The look of shock upon his face quite clearly indicated the loss in translation. I had indeed been to the prison. But only as a visitor to the Japanese torture camp of 1942 . Admittedly my new low grade haircut helped play a convincing role, but I was no escaped convict. I'll correct him. No I won't, let's play the game. "Yes, I left the prison today, after three months in prison. They beat me and whipped me, my back still hurts" I whimpered. "What was your crime?" he enquired. "I walked across the road whilst chewing some gum" was my response. Using my knowledge of local laws I succeeded in scaring this German. His mouth stopped chewing and he showed a look of disbelief. For the next three days he whispered to his friends whilst looking in my direction. He never chewed. And for all I knew he never ever crossed the road again Singapore.
I walked past a neon sign. 'Haircuts ten dollars in ten minutes'. Now that was a pledge. I walked inside the door and sat down, a procedure I had followed for years. "You want haircut" came a voice from one of the uniformed hairdressers. I was going to reply "No I want half a shandy and a packet of Doritos" but refrained thinking sarcasm would not travel well in these parts. "You must purchase card" came the reply. Card? What card. Then I saw the the machine in the corner. You had to insert ten dollars, the prize would be a plastic card. There were seats numbered from one to ten. I sat in seat two and just watched in pure bemusement.
This was a conveyor belt of hairdressing of which I had never seen before. You pay your money and wait your turn. There were seven hairdressers working in the space age like studio. Televisions were blaring the latest hits. Welcome to QB Shell. This is the latest trend from Japan, the new Mcdonalds of hairdressing. Not only does it pledge to cut your hair in ten minutes for ten dollars, it also pledges to save the world and fight the spread of germs.They use a new recyclable comb for each customer, the cutting 'tools' are sterilized by ultra-violet rays, mineral water is used to clean their hands and equipment. Yes mineral water, not good old tap water.
Once I had learned how to purchase a card I just sat back and marveled in the experience. There was no polite and uncomfortable conversation on both sides like back home, well she could'nt speak a word of English. In fact explaining a number four on top graduated to a number two on the sides whilst keeping the sideburns at number one seemed to be as tricky as taking off a wet pair of jeans after eight pints whilst not trying to wake anyone else up. To my amazement I did'nt look like Jim Carey in Dumb and Dumber when she finished. I was even more amazed that she had finished the job in nine minutes and completed the best haircut I had ever had, all for three pounds. The highlight was the vacuum cleaner contraption that appeared from some secret hatch in the ceiling that fell down and vacuumed my hair clean of any hair. She even put it down my t-shirt. Nice touch. But probably the best part of all was not having to deliberate over tips. I had paid up front and did'nt not have to watch the normal expression of 'thanks that will buy me 50 penny sweets' as I exited the hairdressers.
When you think of Singapore you think of shopping. Absolutely nothing that I saw in this island did anything to detach this stereotype. At every MRT station is a shopping centre that would dwarf any you have been to before. In every shop in every shopping centre they sell every make and model of everything that has ever been produced. Only a year earlier that it comes out anywhere else. Each of these shops are open from early in the morning till late at night and are staffed by more people than the cold meat section in Tesco on a busy Saturday morning.
So what do you do in Singapore? Well you start by getting off the MRT and finding yourself surprisingly..... in a shopping centre. You then spend the next two hours travelling to every floor - more often or not nine of them, then you try and work out 'is it really that much cheaper than back home?'. You then spend the next seven hours trying to find the thing you wanted at the first shop after realsing that every shop and shopping centre looks the same. But you spend most of your time actually just trying to walk. This place is so clean that they polish the marble floors in these shopping centres. They even provide (and insist you use them) plastic bags for your wet umbrellas. Each day there would be two hours of downpour. This in turn creates these shopping centres and the streets outside into a free ice skating rink. All you have to do is bring along a pair of six month worn flip flops with no grip and hey presto - Bambi on Ice. I felt I was doing my bit for international comedy, they laughed so hard watching me trying to stand up after I had fallen down for the third time. Singapore is purely a one day stop over. The locals get offended when you question "Well what exactly is there to do here?".
I spent five days in the district of Little India staying at hostel called 'The Inn Crowd'. The backpacker scene obviously has not graced this island - for this was the only hostel I had ever heard of. They used this monopolistic position to put in force their own set of rules. Next to the door were forty two pairs of smelling shoes. You had to enter with bare feet. And next were the rules. "You have to sign in here and sign out there....no noise after 1am.... clean up after you....no sleeping bags.....you have to lick my dirty feet before you go outside" and that sort of thing. On top of the mattress was a big plastic cover. I did'nt know whether they had a problem with people pissing themselves on a regular basis but all I knew was the last time I had seen such covers were on the E-Wing in Southend General Hospital. Sleeping on plastic covers means that whenever a person flips over or moves their head when sleeping (and believe me they do) the sound created is similar to an old lady stuffing five plastic bags in her plastic bag bag (for whenever she needs a plastic bag). This combined with the fact that I was sharing the room with twenty others all of whom seemed to come and go from the airport at different times in the night meant that I went to sleep when the last person got in and woke up when the first person got up.
Despite these interesting 'features' for six pounds a night you could hardly complain and the hostel did indeed provide a relaxed hippy type travelling environment.
The most interesting part about this place is Sienglish. The signs and shops are in English. It provides a certain level of comfort in an Asian place far away from home or the ease of Australia. The only difference between Sienglish and English as you or I know it comes to when they speak it. Even though it is their first language for the masses they have managed to produce a dialect that is harder to understand than a drunk Geordie in a loud pub whilst having a drunk Scot talking in your ear. It seems they just completely make up words. You spend the vast majority of the time just nodding which is fantastic for the local Burger King as you end up ordering a large meal instead of a medium one, the fries and cheese on offer and two apple pies in which you had no intention of purchasing. It also ceased to amaze me that this version of Sienglish for which they used for the majority of the time in everyday life suddenly turned into English when you entered the hi-fi superstore. How talented.
The Hayman Islands. One of the worlds top resorts that welcomes Royalty. It is the only Australian hotel to be given 'world quality status'. The 'taxi' to the resort is in fact a $4 million dollar 'Sun Godess' cruiser taking you to a complex that cost in excess of $300 million dollars to construct. This was certainly not the backpacking I had imagined. Of course not. I turned the page on the 'Welcome to the Whitsunday's' booklet. Blue sky, sun drenched decks, sunbathing with the blue sky above the sails. Then I put down the next brochure down. It was cold and wet, the wind was blowing and my jumper helped protect me from the wind. I clung firmly to my camera as the boat rocked from side to side.
They say you pay for what you get. They say that money does not buy you happiness. Well for three days that extra bit of money certainly proved the above two statements to be correct. I had been sailing on two occasions previously to stepping on the Kiana. My dad is from Auckland which meant on top of being a lifeguard and surfer he was naturally a sailor.... Or so I thought. The dark and dingy Thames estuary spanning Southend On Sea provided my first sailing experince. My dad had acquired a second GP-14 sailing boat and I was the first guinea pig at the age of eleven. In my young naivety I had missed the fact that I was going because nobody else wanted to. It sank. He forget to close the flaps at the bottom. He ventured out three months later. In my obviously not improving naivety I agreed once again. It capsized. The life jackets did not work and we hung on in the murky water for forty minutes.
So fifteen years later and with the naivety fully worked on we booked the Kiana. After hearing stories of jam packed sardines on sailing boats I advised the guys to go for a maximum of fifteen people. The free dive proved the deciding factor for some. Good words of encouragement from the agents proved decisive for others.
We arrived at the quayside. The boats sat before us. I marveled at the sight in front of me, the smooth lines, she could not have been more than twenty years old, sitting elegantly next to the others, this was going to be a pleasant experience. Then the girl I had transfixed my eyes on got on the other boat. Wrong group. Once we found the right group we made our way on the the Kiana. The first impressions were good. A sizeable rear area, sleeping quarters there were not molded into the boat and as good 'homely' feeling as you could ask for on the water. We even had our own mugs. Nice touch. The first stop was on a beautiful beach. The sand was 95% silicone. I amused myself for the two hour stop by making a number of different shaped silicon boobs.
The three days enabled me realise how sailing can be pleasurable. You can venture out without sinking or toppling over. It can be comfortable. It is relaxing. In fact they should bring back the convict ships. If it was like this ship nobody would drink, everyone falls asleep at 9pm and everyone is too dizzy to argue. It would cut crime in half. Take away the hiding places of land and people do talk to each other (Well you WILL talk to me, there is no ESCAPE). You will read books you would not normally read. In fact you will do things you never dreamed of doing. The sea air has a strange effect on you. Take snorkeling. I had never been snorkeling before. It was a combination of not liking swimming, not liking the sea, but probably and most importantly detesting fish. We have not got on since I was eleven. Those 'chicken fingers' that I ate so naively for five months were in fact 'fish fingers' weren't they mother? When I was younger I thought Cod was chicken. How such a small level of deception at a small age can lead to big dislikes at a big age. To blame it all on the 'chicken fingers would be unfair. My route to school included Westcliff Fishmongers. My developing sense of smell taught me that fishes smell. They smell bad. Not only do they smell bad, they look bad.
So there I was waving to the fishes - we put aside our differences for twenty minutes. They ignored me and I ignored them. They even politely parted like the Red Sea when a group of fifty strong headed straight for me. Even fish have manners. The next step was the first scuba dive off the beach. After a brief session on diving the night before it was time to go the next step. I would like to say I looked like Sean Connery in the diving scene of 'Never Say never again'. But I did'nt. My last chance to be Bond evaporated. "Do you want to go out backwards like the movies" Brent excitedly exclaimed. "I'd prefer to waddle in from the beach just like on Bournemouth beach thanks" I replied. One step at a time. I've got plenty of time. Connery was fifty two when he made that film.
Learning to breathe through your mouth was strange and hardly natural. Taking deep long breaths without using your nose was un-nerving. Pressing the black button that made you sink beneath the water was like putting rocks around your feet and allowing yourself to fall. It goes against human instinct. The first twenty minute dive went without incident. It was actually quite impressive despite the feeling of claustrophobia. They must have thought I was lighter than I was. I sunk straight to the bottom damaging coral that had survived for thousands of years. I was a murderer.
The second dive was a paid dive in the Great Barrier reef. One girl seemed nervous. "What am I getting myself into?" she exclaimed. "Water" I replied. Somehow I don't think I relieved her tension. Although I was apprehensive this was an opportunity not to be missed. We flipped out backwards and the four of us headed by the dive master Brent descended below. The depth was more impressive than the first. It was like jumping from the first diving board and then running up to the forth. You would not do it own your own but everyone else was so you felt like you had to. Everything seemed to be going fine. Then without warning I gulped some water. Natural instinct kicked in. I breathed through my nose. Damn my nose did not work. I spat out the water. Too late. My breathing had increased in tempo and this in turn caused my mind to race. Panic started to set in. I was unfamiliar water and my all the things I had learnt suddenly went away. It was like opening the first page of an exam paper and finding your mind go blank. Thankfully for me Brent was at hand quickly. The worst part is that you cannot communicate. You can point but pointing is hardly descriptive. Thanks to Brent I managed to control my breathing after ten minutes and was ready to continue. Panic over. Being down with the reef is surreal and amazingly peaceful once you have mastered the art of relaxing.With the 7am diving missions accomplished the rest of the time would be spent on deck or down beneath. We passed numerous boats packed with people spilling out onto the decks. Just like the Jeeps on Frasier it was an amazing engineering feat to fit so many on such a boat. Then the the connection was made. It was the same three hundred dollar Frasier Whitsunday package. Great price. Crap conditions. I did not know if their waves were a sign of greetings or a cry for help. Ours was not a party boat. The early starts ensured that. Instead of waking up with your head spinning and your world rocking you just woke up with the rocking. Breakfast was at six. They boat employed sophisticated techniques to wake the sleepers. They had great food. Food that would go unless you awoke from your sleepy haze. The food was excellent in the morning, afternoon and evening. Just how this was achieved was a cuisine wonder considering the kitchen was at twenty degrees for parts of the journey. The chef was Emily from Preston. She worked for twelve hours a day and six days a week cooking cleaning for all whilst remaining completely unflustered. Every now again she would sleep on deck. Despite having no prior cooking experience she managed to churn out meal after meal with fantastic preparation.
The three day journey was a highlight of the travels so far. It learned some valuable lessons. Couples do talk, fish still look bad even without being sliced open, ships don't always sink, you can bump your head over and over again without learning and you well and truly pay for what you get.
Virgin Blue. No not the name of the latest book that I am reading but the low budget airline that has been operating in Australia for four years. It would take the same amount of time to fly from Sydney to Melbourne as it would Gatwick to Tenerife. However the difference was that unlike going from the cold of Gatwick to the sun of Tenerife , I was leaving the sun of Cairns to get a cold in Melbourne. It had been twenty seven degrees the day we left. It was fifteen when we landed. Virgin Blue is similar to Easy Jet or Ryan Air. Its no thrills. You appreciate this no thrills approach when you sit down and realise that you will have to pay for a cup of water. This has to be purchased from the 'extras' menu. The entertainment was six radio stations. Of course to enjoy the music you had to purchase a set of pink headphones for a cost of two dollars from the 'extras menu'. Whilst they were demonstrating the emergency procedures I was expecting them to say "And for those of you who have purchased the additional life jackets and oxygen masks from the 'extras menu' please pay attention, the other cheapskates can just die".
The airline did provide something for free. A screaming baby. As with most flights I always had the knack of sitting right in front of the adorable little creatures. And like with most flights I spent the entire journey bracing myself for a projectile of yellow vomit to come over seat 18b. I spent the rest of the flight with my pink headphones listening to to station six, 'the latest banging tunes from Europe' according to the leaflet. It was not by choice. The German hardcore techno seemed to be the best at volume setting 24 at countering the scream behind me.
The taxi driver at Melbourne airport looked at us as if we had just asked him to drive us to Perth two minutes before his shift was due to finish. Maybe that was understandable. All we knew was that we had booked a YHA in Melbourne without knowing which street it belonged to. It was one thirty in the morning so we asked him to drop us off in the middle of the city instead. The place was deserted. Using a crumpled map at the bottom of my bag we trundled off for the forty minute walk to the YHA on the outskirts of the city. The night porter quickly confirmed my ever increasing stereotype of hostel night porters. His face looked like we had just banged on his door in the middle of the night and asked for a mug of hot chocolate whilst putting our muddy trainers on his brand new cream carpet.
This YHA was the sort of place that reminded me of Geography field trips, the sort of place that was built in the seventies and never touched since. And just like my Geography field trips there were scores of fifteen year olds talking in the corridor in their pajamas.
It was two am and I needed to find a venue that screened the football. I spent the next six hours in a pub surrounded by strange people and sitting next to a foreign person. He had the amazing ability to speak perfect English when England were winning but would suddenly speak fluent Portuguese as soon as Portugal scored. Very talented.
Melbourne International Backpackers. The name itself was enough to put you off. The twenty dollars tariff was an even greater indication that this was'nt going to be the hilton of backpackers. This hostel was different than the others. It actually managed to be colder inside than outside. Remarkable. The four bedded dorm of 310 also managed something else different. It managed to be colder in the room than the corridor outside. I have learnt that the Aussies have a great sense of humour. This was demonstrated by the extra fan in the room in substitute for any kind of heating. The room smelt as if someone had put six pairs of damp pants on the bed and left them there for two weeks before our arrival. Actually their were four pairs of pants drying and two pairs of socks. They were laid out more in habit than effect. The room was so cold that the clothes never actually dried, if anything they got damper.
Melbourne is a grand and intelligent city. I could tell it was intelligent as people bumped into you on the street. They were thinking so hard as to try and avoid a collision that they forgot how to walk and would bump straight into you. The weather also made the people look more intelligent. Somehow the scarves, long over coats and mittens looked better than the torn shorts and vested people of the north. There were decent museums, art galleries, numerous outdoor cafes, grassy fields, riverside shops and streams of witty conversation flowing at the lights.
The intelligence of the city was questioned when I stopped and observed the local traffic. To turn right in Central Melbourne you have to get in the left hand lane and cross over the right lane traffic. This is called a 'hook' turn. The theory is this allows the trams to move more freely in the city but to it looks completely bizarre and dangerous. First of all you have to go against your instincts and get in the left hand land lane to turn right. Then you signal that you want to turn right. The next step is to look to the left for cars, straight on for trams and then over your shoulder for passing right hand lane traffic. Incredible. Incredibly stupid. The trams themselves are certainly an interesting aspect to the city. My first encounter with a tram was when I was not intending to board it. Melbourne consists of four lane roads, two lanes for each direction. In the middle of these lanes is a sizable gap where pedestrians can wait whilst attempting to cross the road. Or so I thought. In fact it is the tram lines. As I waiting for a gap in the traffic I was greeted by a large hooting sound - I was standing on the tram line with two of them advancing from opposite directions.
If I can'y beat the trams I thought, I will join them. The tram queue is in the middle of the street. The trams have numbers but's that's all. How anybody could tell the difference between the 63 and the 82 was beyond me. There is nowhere to pay so you just jump on. Then you realise there is no guard. The only way you can pay your fair is via the ticket machine located in the centre of the tram. Which is fine as long as you are not standing down the end with thirty two people squeezed in between. So you fight your conscious. 'I could not pay even if I wanted to' I thought. Despite this inability to pay I still felt guilty. It was the sort of guilt I had when I was standing in the express '12 items or less queue' only to discover that I had 13 items. I would debate with myself 'Do two bananas count as one item or two if they are attached together?' whilst I knew Mrs Brown behind me had already found me guilty of have one item too many. And just like standing in the express queue I decided to do nothing and keep quiet, just get off at the next stop. That's because that's what you have to do on a tram. There are no signs telling you where you were. You got off where most people get off and got on where most people got on. Maybe I was just being dumb in this intelligent city.
"What's did you say your name was mate?" said the driver as he peered towards the back of the coach. "Err Jamie" came the reply. "No I mean Paul, Simon rather". Unbelievable. We had been on this coach for only ten minutes and already people were jumping on to take the piss. Maybe because the bus was bright blue and yellow in colour. Or maybe and more likely it was because it had 'Neighbours' splashed across the side in huge letters. We had found ourselves on the official Neigbours tour bus. By accident of course.
As the bus creeped around the busy commuter streets of Melbourne at 9am that morning I could'nt help but feel we were on a special bus for special people. Stare they did. Some people laughed, other pointed and giggled. The cars that drew up beside us at the multiple traffic light stops peered in and laughed even more. For on the monitor was the 'Locomotion' song performed so admirably by the then curly haired Kylie Minogue. We were watching the Neighbours DVD soundtrack - along with Marg in the tram opposite and Stevie in his suped up Holden. I knew how goldfish felt now. I only wish I had their two second memory. We arrived at
Ramsay St. This was the reason that we had paid the thirty five dollars after all. "Na, can't go down there, they are filming today" said the orange jacketed security guard sat at the end of the road.
We could barely make out a microphone and a coated lady who the girl at the front enthusiastically said was Lyn Scully. So we stood there for the next thirty minutes at the end of
Ramsay streetand watched people drink cups of coffee. It was as frustrating as waiting thirty minutes in a Tesco supermarket queue only for the the lady in front to suddenly start looking for her purse and taking her over filled handbag apart (Whilst the men start to guess the amount and prepare for the bill with a combination of notes and coins the woman who has been staring into space for the last twenty minutes then proceeds to look as shocked as if the teenager scanning the food is asking for her phone number, not the bill). Things were looking a little better.
The bus was going to the studios where all the inside filming was done! Well actually this included a drive by of the large concrete building in question, no-one was allowed inside. As the bus drove away we did manage to catch a glimpse of the tip of fur tree actually outside Lou's place! And when we thought it could'nt get any better the coach driver slowed down so we could see the actual bench used in filming the park scenes! With the excitement of the morning nearly over we trundled back on the coach watching the episode when Todd got run over crossing the road. What a better way to finish the tour but watch Todd go into cardiac arrest after saying "You're so beautiful" to Phoebe. A classic comical moment in soap history.
When the excitement of the day was beginning to fade we suddenly remembered. We were going to 'Meet the Neigbours' night. Four years previously a man called George Josevski decided if you squeezed two hundred and fifty people in a pub and brought along a couple of people from Neigbours you could make a quick buck. And making a buck he is. At thirty dollars a go you don't have to be Stephen Hawkins to work out that this is a money spinner. As well as purchasing the over inflated priced drinks from the overly tacky bar staff you can also purchase a 'Neighbours' pen, a 'Neighbours' cap or a 'Neighbours' t-shirt. Even if people were interested in purchasing one of these special items, the pub would have to be empty before anyone would part with their cash with nobody looking. Lyn Scully and Toadie held a question and answer question. And the the final duty for the 'stars'. They had to pose for two hundred and fifty photos. And so we left. Early. I staggered into the fresh air, feeling suddenly queasy and largely incapable. If only Lyn Scully knew that my tongue was in her ear whilst the camera flashed.
We wedged open the door with a chair. It was dark and we needed to get some light into the room without rudely having to turn the light on. Actually the room stank and we were trying to get some fresh air into the flagging living area. It smelt of a combination nappies, B.O, sweat and a whiff of sewage just like that emitted from the sewage pipes on Southend beach. We had gone into the room at 10am that morning. We complained. They sent in the cleaners with 'heavy duty' cleaning materials to alleviate the problem. They made it worse. It was like going into a bathroom after a paranoid person had finished their session and proceeded to spray the entire contents of their 'Rose' air frenshener to 'cover' the smell. Just like spraying your trainers with a canister of Lynx. The stuff does'nt work, it just makes it worse and I know I'll smell your feet again. The next time I see someone going for the 'Vanilla air freshener' I'll tap them on the shoulder and tell them to turn on the shower on full heat for five minutes. The steam works wonders especially if you coordinate it with some door fanning.
"You can come and stay in our room if you like" suggested the two girls sitting outside our dorm. Never had I welcomed such a bed smell in my life. The bag keeping the door open had proved to be our downfall. Just like prodding a spiders web with a piece of stick when you were younger the inevitable happened. Out of nowhere a middle aged short dressing green t-shirted man arrived before us. He had come from nowhere. "What you guys doing with the door wedged open?" he challenged. "It stinks in there, we are trying to some air in there" we protested. "Na, let me see for myself". He marched in and without thought turned on the lights and shouted "Struth, smells like a garbo in here, you say the cleaners came in this sarvo, well strike me pink". He was not amused. "Which one of yous mongrels made this smell, what yous been up to". He examined us like a carpet stain. His teacher like questioning made us respond in a pupil like fashion. "It was him". We pointed towards an aging man slumped across his bed. We did not know it was him. He was an easy target. He was asleep. Just because he acted strangely, looked a bit strange and spoke in a strange manner it did not mean he smelt funny. There was time for guilt later.
"Can we move into the room next door" we enquired. "NO, that is a girls dorm" he countered. "Really?" we replied, trying to act as if we did not know. "You can have 35, I'll let you in tonight and you can sort it out with reception tomorrow". As he walked off he turned back and pointed "And no going in 34, its a GIRLS dorm".
The manner of the night porter summed up the YHA perfectly. The 'Y' stands for youth I know but it was as if your parents had sent you away to stay with aunt Betty and in the process wanted a regular update of your behaviour. The same night porter had called the police twice the previous night. Was there a fight? Maybe it was attempted robbery? Could there have been a madman on the prowl? No the girl next door had come back with a nice young fellow and had attempted to enter the hostel at 3am. I knew it said 'No Guests beyond this point at the door but every other hostel said that. Every night we would come in and every night in the corner of our eye would be the night porter.
The way in which the night porter ran the establishment after 10pm was very much the same way the cleaners ran the kitchen after 8am. At 10:35am twelve people and I were happily cooking and washing in the kitchen when three cleaners stormed in. "Ok out everyone, we need to clean the kitchen". The poor Japanese girl in the corner was so scared she left her packet of noodles on the boil and ran out of the kitchen. I have to admit these cleaners were slightly scary. Scary in the way that they were bigger than you in both length and diameter, could speak for five people and were groomed, well not groomed at all. "Make sure you label you bags with your name, your room number and the date you are leaving" one boomed. "We WILL throw your food out. We have a process that works and we suggest you conform to our process if you don't want to go hungry" she added. There were fourteen large fridges. For every day of the week there were two, clearly marked 'Tuesday' or 'Wednesday'. The 'Tuesday fridge' would be cleared out on Tuesday and the Wednesday fridge, well that would be cleaned out on Wednesday. That was their specially formulated 'system'.
The YHA kitchen was similar to most other YHA kitchens. It actually looked and felt like a kitchen unlike some other student house type kitchens in other hostels. It actually had a uniform number of knives and forks unlike the fifteen forks and one knives at other hostel kitchens. It had more than one plate, a instant hot water tap for tea or coffee and a rather grand clean looking steel work top area. Even having cutlery was a bonus. At some hostels you have to 'hire' cutlery, forfeit a dollar and put the other nine down as a deposit. In return you got a plate, knive, fork and spoon, a cup if you were lucky but best of all it came in a plastic container just like a school lunchbox. No fork back, no deposit back! Somehow I don't think I will manage to lose that fork making cheese on toast. At the same time it was just like any other hostel kitchen.
There was a cupboard labeled 'Left for guests to use'. This was basically a cupboard full of things other people simply did'nt want or had tasted and then realised they did'nt want it. You could hardly create a meal from the unwanted cupboard contents of powdered milk, half a packet of sultanas and a bit of nutmeg. Even the 'Ready Steady Cook' chefs would have their work cut out. Anyhow even if there was something in there of use like salt or pepper you felt like you were going through someone else's rubbish bag in their home. The kitchen seemed to be full. All the time. Part of the reason for this was this 'Youth' hostel Association venue attracted a lot of elderly people. When you get to a certain age cooking seems to be the only joy left in life for some.
Some were cooking roasts, others were preparing five course meals for themselves and Bob. There were lots of Japanese people cooking. Well boiling noodles. We found a three foot area to prepare our beans on toast. When you take a plate from a hostel kitchen you always inspect it You inspect it for any obvious sign of crusted food left over from Steve's lasagna before you or Kate's Bolognese before that. Then you wash the plate. Somehow you just can't trust that the person before you has washed the plate to your high standards. If they were washing that plate for themselves you felt sure that they would give it that little bit more cloth action or use washing up liquid instead of some luke warm water. You would also think they they would have used a tea towel instead of their t-shirt to dry the plate. If they dried it at all. After finishing our gourmet beans on toast meal I went to wash my plate, knife and fork. As I was drying the knife with my t-shirt after quickly shoving it under a cold tap I was thinking 'Na that will be alright, I won't be using this kitchen until next week so I won't have to use that knife again'. So the night porter was a jobs worth and the kitchen staff were scary.
So what. "Housekeeping!". It was twenty past nine. Unlike most other hostels where the cleaners had the common sense to wait until after ten these came in at the earliest opportunity. "Ah look at all these sleeping boys, they must have had a late night" one plump cleaner said to another even plumper one. Of course we were in bed. It was nine thirty. It was if their sole purpose was to wake everyone up in the room because they were wasting their day. It was the sort of tactic your parents employed when you slept in past eleven on a Saturday morning. Like your parents they opened all the curtains, turned on the vacuum and spoke at the top of their voices to each other.
Unlike my parents they did not try and wake you from your slumber with a cup of tea - more of a good tactic than a good gesture. It never worked anyway - I would fall asleep with it in my hand. It never ceased to amaze me - I could roll over but my arm would still be straight with the tea in my hand. I never spilt a drop in ten years. "Struth it's cold out there boys" one shouted. We knew it was cold, that was why were in bed. "Bet it gets colder down in Brissie though, na could never live down there" she added. We thought she meant Britain and left it at that. "So James, when are you going back home to Brisbane" she enquired. "I'm from Britain, and in a month" he countered. Ah I see. So what's it like in Brisbane then?" she replied. Unbelievable. Not only was this woman unable to tell the difference between an English and Australian accent she was also picking up the pants from under our beds. As one of the portly ladies jumped up to the top bunk to retrieve the bottom sheets from the bed she quipped "I don't need to go to the gym, I'm well fit from doing these beds".
Quite clearly had she not looked in the mirror for a very long period of time but her sense of humour was enlightening. Finally ten minutes after their arrival peace. The peace was always followed by a quick glance out of the window. The day was determined by the weather.
Most people always act surprised when they come to Cairns "What you mean there's NO BEACH?". The look on their face always suggests that they are going to get back in their car and drive back they way they came. There is water, its just next to mud flats instead of sand. Just what it is about sand that makes people rush down the beach I will never know. It gets everywhere, it sticks to you when wet, it blows in your face, it breaks your camera, damages your phone. And just when you think you have got rid of the offending grains after spending thirty minutes with a towel rubbing off the particles, it follows you home. It then decides that it's a good time to come off you. It normally prefers a newly vacuumed floor but it's favourite is a newly made bed. You may as well go the full hogg and eat crumbling cookies in bed. But people don't like mud flats.
So Cairns council put down an artificial beach. No that was not good enough, it still smelt of mud. So to appease the tourists it built a large lagoon area and it opened to the public in 2003. And it's just as well they did build this place. Because that is the only thing to do all day. Instead of asking people "What are you going to do today" or "What did you do today" you re-phrase it to "At what area are you going to be sitting by the lagoon today" and "By gosh was'nt it warm down by the lagoon today". You see that is the main problem with the 'City' of Cairns, it only has a population of 120,000 people which by the law averages means there is'nt much to do. Your day is determined by the weather. A cloud in the sky is as frustrating as seeing your inbox with ten new messages only to find that four are from the 'King' of Tanzania who desperately needs to borrow some money but he WILL pay you back and make you rich, two saying they will help you become 'bigger', two from your bank saying about the new changes to the system and the last two being 'mail undeliverable' warning messages.
To be fair complaining about a cloud in the sky whilst it is twenty six degrees in mid winter is a little bit English. The lagoon demonstrated all things typically Australian. There were self service barbeques all around the grassy knolls, park benches, live music being played throughout the arena and market stools next to the lagoon. The council insisted on manning the lagoon with two lifeguards in full red and yellow gear. Just how anyone could drown in a pool that was four feet high and without rips or sharks was beyond me. Surely the only role of these guards were to look and warn for dangerous floating escaped brown hostages. No wonder the woman fancy them.
"Yeah, I would'nt go out ay night lads" he said. "Why? Is it rough" I enquired. "Well lets just say boys will be boys". Welcome to Townsville. The portly man at the Globetrotters hostel took our money and slipped back out the back. He must have been with Jack, Daniel, Tia and Maria for most of the afternoon. He smelt like the Bundaberg distillery. The bloodshot look in his eyes clearly demonstrated that at 6pm he was in the advanced stages of his weekend drinking. His wife seemed to take it all in her stride, this was probably a daily routine that she she accepted rather than fought. 'Under friendly ownership' read the sign on the way in. These surely can't have been the owners?
We put our bags down on the nearest table and wooden seating area adjacent to the stairs. A minute to relax and to gain our bearings. "Where yous guys from?". A half slurred, half Australian accent came from the next table. "England" we replied. "Ahh yeah, went to England when I was twenty five, Oxford I think". He was a weathered and bearded fifty ish year old man, still trapped with the hippy movement of years gone by. "I don't smoke tobacco" he added. "I smoke pure Cannabis". A long dark pipe was attached to his face and seemed as much of a fixture as his nose or ears. His eyes had trouble focusing on the most simple things. If he had trouble fixing his eyes on his matches on the table it was amazing that he had spotted us. When he turned around to retrieve some skins from his bag he realised that the three men sitting on the table with him had vanished. "Where did they go?" he muttered. We were his next prey. To be polite Fred asked "Where are you from". The reply was as muddled as his beard. " I've got two existing fines to pay for smoking this stuff in public". The answer proved how badly his brain had become disconnected from his mind. We lasted ten minutes and and made the same excuse as most do when you want to get out of uncomfortable situations. "We are just going for something to eat".
Wondering around Townsville confirmed what other people had said about this place. It was Friday night and the place was uncomfortably quiet for a city. There were a scattering of backpackers dominated by men in black trousers and shirts. The streets were American in style with drive in Bottle shops, drive in motels, drive in tyres and other large pink shop fronts like drive in memad. There was a competition going on as to which establishment could have the most garish advertising boarding's. 'Johns Knob shop' won my prize. The local pubs were certainly, local. As you walked past the occupants caught a glimpse of you. The music was bad. I even felt like walking in there just so the music would stop. The confusing part about this place was it could be so uncomfortable and ugly one minute and pleasant and enjoyable the next. One dark deserted road one minute, one overflowing outdoor happy restaurant the next.
We did go out country to Jack, Daniel, Tia and Maria's friend's advice. We did make it back. In the celebration that followed we decided not to risk it one more night and leave the next day. G
Gilligan's. Built in November 2003. This was the new funky hostel that pretended to be more like a funky hotel. The reception was lined with television monitors. The reception was space age in design. The lifts 'pinged' and a softly spoken female voice kindly told you that she was going down. She even told you when you got to first, second and third base. What can't it always be like that? In it's attempts to be just like a hotel the they adopted a 2pm check in time. They also insisted on manning this 500 bed venue with just two members of staff. They also insisted on a thirty minute checking in process which involved filling in a registration form and then signing three separate pieces of paper which contained just three words on each of them. For all I know I could be have been signing up for for three nude skydiving packages but by that point I would'nt have cared.
This hostel was like going out with a beautiful woman. It had little personality, was expensive, you waited for ages for it to be ready, but it felt nice to be around and it always made out that if you did'nt want to be there then there was a large queue of people more than willing to take your place the next night. And just like going out with a beautiful woman you put all these things to one side and paid for another night. Of course these conclusions were based on what my friends had said after they went out with the beautiful women.
In the room we met Hans. A typical blonde haired blue eyed German. His English was good but not perfect. He had the amazing ability to be blunt. This was not somebody that was afraid to get to the point. "She is like a pig, her face is crocked and I detest her". We only asked what the person was like staying in the room, we were not divorce lawyers. "This place smells, I demand to be moved!" he added. And what do you think of Cairns? "It is boring, it does not amuse me". "Have you been out?" we countered. "Yes" he defended. "Down the road". He was quite upset that his trusty alarm clock had failed to wake him that morning causing him to miss his bus. How inefficient. "Can you make this thing work?" he enquired. When we tried to explain that we were not that efficient in electronics I thought he was going to say "I demand to see your papers!". He did'nt. Cairns is the capital of the north.
Sydney is the capital of the South. That is where the similarity ends between these two cities. In 1934 a huge two kilometre in diameter asteroid called 'Rocky' plummeted from space and devastated large parts of Cairns. Of course it did'nt. But it may well have just done. It was if some overweight person had sat on on the city, causing the sides to squelch out from the centre. The buildings were as low as the buildings in Sydney were high. For this city seems to have a problem of being able to fill itself with people and cars. You could quite happily walk along the main streets and not encounter a single person or car. You could walk from one end of this place to another and not know where you were going to or coming from. All the streets were the same. Same in diameter, same shops, same trees, same pavement. You could walk for miles without finding the centre of town. Then again there did'nt seem to be a centre.
A few miles north of Cairns is Kurunda. The clientele did not do a great deal to remove the 'tourist' tag that this town had acquired over the years. Middle aged couples and their children paraded the market stools laden with bags. Japanese tourists blocked off large sections of the pavement, doing what Japanese tourists do best in the street. Standing there and doing absolutely nothing. The elderly couples were busy purchasing the best Australian gifts for their beloved back home. The tacky gifts were on a par with the bright red inflatable London bus, the flaking fake silver Eiffel tower key ring, the 'I love USA tee-shirt'. I have never seen an inflatable red bus on someone's mantelpiece, neither have I seen the flaking tower jiggling on someone's key ring. I have also never seen an American wearing an 'I love USA' tee-shirt, well maybe I have.
These were the sort of gifts that you saw only ten days of the year. The ten days when your parents visited. So I rushed straight in and bought one snake skin purse (100% REAL of course!), two Kangaroo skin rugs and a boomerang that will never be used simply because they don't work. The Aboriginal statue was a must. Like most of these statue's you would never put it in your own living room but that was'nt the point. As I was handing over the three hundred dollars I paused for a moment to think about the Kangaroo I had stroked and who had consumed eighty five cents worth of nuts and grain from my 'feed the animals' bag at the Billiabong sanctuary. What a waste. I then started to feel guilty purchasing this skin. We had been friends. He had licked my hand. I had tickled his belly. He had hopped away in happiness. I was feeling really bad. I mean there were plenty of dead Kangaroos on the roadside that were fresher and a great deal cheaper than the hundred dollars I had just paid. And now the Kangaroo rug would