I used to tell people that I first visited Asia by chance in my early twenties when traveling alone to Australia from England. In those pre-internet days, and in that part of my life where money was scarce, buying an airline ticket involved a travel agent and specifically a down beat enterprise called Trail Finders. It was in a seedy part of west London and I was carrying more cash than I had ever done so before, about three hundred pounds. My purpose was buy a six month round trip ticket, London to Sydney and this is where the haphazard, somewhat casual nature of my journey comes in.
Their office was next to the hostels on Earls Court Road, a place reeking of Kabab houses and the worst kind of pubs where the sour aroma of beer and the reverberation of raised voices was enough to make me slink across the road, some might call it cowardice, I called it prudence. The man helping me with the transaction sat behind a computer screen, but at that time it was more decorative than practical, and their function appeared to be limited to generating a soft upward light on the faces of the keen young people in the office. Binders were referred to, well worn brochures from airlines scrutinized; an attractive Australian assistant was brought onto the case, the booking would be made by fax and that apparently was her job. The Airline options were discussed in more detail, one more exotic than the next; Singapore Airlines, Thai Airlines and United Arab Emirates. However the prices were too high until, with doubtful looks passing between the two employee’s, the words “Garuda Airlines” was raised tentatively and already I detected a defiant tone of defense. They are not that bad, was the general opinion, convincing each other, they are cheap, and you can break your journey in Jakarta! The girl walked away, she wanted nothing to do with this. But he continued now sure of himself, it would be within your budget, give or take a little, and we can get you to Bali for a week or two without extra cost, it would change my life he assured me, you will see the world in a completely different way.
So it was done, my savings exchanged for a typed piece of paper containing the itinerary, (Sydney via Dubai, Jakarta, Denpasar) and a list of the various alarming vaccinations I needed to get in the country. This was new, and suddenly what I was doing was real, up until that point I hadn’t left Europe, and even then the trips had been mainly just France, Holland and Germany, up until now there was no mention of the sinister nature of the diseases bourn by water, food and insects.
I had decided to take six months out of my life to travel to Australia less because I wanted to be thrilled by the other side of the world and more because I needed to get away from the world I knew. Gloucester, Berkshire, London, the dreadful dourness of South Wales. There was something about that closeted Island that grew to annoy me and even to consistently hurt me a little, I had learnt to my cost about the malignancy of the class system, of its rigid immobility, which is guarded equally by both the upper and lower ones, both defiantly proud of their intransigence, their blinkered world view, their accents which shamelessly broadcasted who and what they are. I wanted no part of this, to be boxed in and conventially defined, and although I would miss the wild, damp, melancholy landscapes and the gentility of a quiet market town (and still do) I also needed the blue horizon, the emptiness of the desert and the salt and disorderly racket of the Ocean.
I remember little about the flight, my parents dropping me at Heathrow, a sepia memory, my mother crying or pretending to. A first taste of the East in the food served in flight, a sliver of meat in peanut sauce, called Satay. The other passengers were predominantly Indonesian, smaller than me with coffee colored skin, easy to smile and to engage. Swapping planes in Dubai and walking through the empty airport as if it was still a blur, too afraid to get a coffee from the tiny Arabic stand where all the men were wearing flowing white kandura and a sparse group of women in black burqa’s. Time gets lost on a flight like this, all was confusion. I had a window seat and stared at the endless Pakistani mountains while the pink sun rose, but fell asleep again waking to the plane landing in bright sunlight. When the aircraft door opened and we walked down the stairs to the tarmac the violent heat hit me with a fury that I had never experienced before, heat like this changes everything, even opinions. As I walked towards the airport building I noticed movement on the roof, and when I got closer saw literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of people standing there watching the planes and the passengers. Later I told people I felt like one of the Beatles in Shea stadium and began to realize that the guy in Trail Finders was only partially correct, yes you will see the world in a new way, but more importantly you will see yourself in a different light, even if only a temporary transformative moment, mild mannered accountant to rock star, but later these feelings got darker.
A smaller plane took me into the night to Bali with the sudden realization that I was almost eight thousand miles from home without a place to stay. There were no cell phones, no credit cards. I needn’t have worried, even in the middle of the night on arrival there was a scrum of locals offering accommodation and I soon found myself in an old 1950’s America car, its vinyl seating pungent and slippery, with three Indonesian guys clearly haggling with each other on how best to rip me off. Even then I knew this was the natural way of things in a third world country, the disparity in wealth means that it is a role that must be played, a dollar here or there was nothing to us and everything to them. I spent a sleepless night, perhaps the body confusion from the flight, or the sight of a lizard on the teak ceiling in the room I was over paying for, or my mind still racing with excitement. Everything was strange, including the fruit left for me on a plate, each one wholly indecipherable and richly colored, the texture of rubber and the color of a rose, or blood, several with spikes and so perilous to handle, their appearance as aggressive as the language. They were called Snakeskin, Ambarella, Mangosteen and Rambutan and were perfectly formed little sculptural objects, slightly erotic in their way and left untouched not least to remind me how far from home I was.
The next day I did little except learn about the immediate environment. A walk on the beach, the intensity of the angry heat which was new to me, at a certain point each day darkness would come in quickly and soft, heavy raindrops fell leaving a marks on the sand like children’s handprints, a race to find shelter. Few things are more luxurious than being under a palm shelter while rain thunders down, time slows as there is no alternative but to let the shower pass, nature is in control and that also comforting. In the evening I would go to one of the small restaurants where rough stools and shaky tables were placed outside and the menu was limited to Nasi Goreg, Renang, Nasi Rowon and other deeply unfamiliar meals, but I stuck to Fried Rice most evenings. On one occasion I was followed home by a group of teenagers who wanted first to chat and then as I approached my Losman they asked if I wanted a girl, and then after my repeated denials shyly one suggested a boy? At which we all laughed with a good nature that would perhaps not be quite so acceptable today, later I watched the sun go down, vulgar, fake and breathtaking in its unnatural, extrovert performance.
Memories are unreliable after the passing of so many years, and although I would write then with discipline, the notebooks were thrown away on one of the many moves I have made since. I do remember cinematic moments though, a scorching ride in a van full of local people, climbing up neatly terraced hills, sun dappled roads with deep richly colored shadows as if they were painted by a tropic impressionist, leaning out of the window in the hope of some relief from the interior heat only to find warm wind on my face. Another time when I was told to visit a restaurant the other side of the forest, which became a substantial walk with only the light of the moon through dense jungle, unpredictable and alien, hyper aware that there are animals all around and underfoot, their chimes and rattles, their fragrance, impossible to ignore. This was confirmed when I came out of the other side, heart thumping and relieved only to find three young laughing children playing with a long branch which turned out to have a small, black snake writhing on the end of it, they were thrilled and excited at the find and keen to share their new toy, but I walked cowardly at a safe distance adding a new layer to their hilarity. And later that evening on the same pale path home through the dense tree’s, the sharp light of the moon now behind me, unpolluted and glistening from the broad, waxy leaves, me thinking only of accidently treading on a small, black, slippery thing.
One day I was having lunch and got into a conversation with an Australian guy a few years older than me. We was a traveler, a species I hadn’t yet properly encountered, someone who had left home and worked a little and lazed in foreign places, mainly South East Asia. He talked enthusiastically about far off, un-spoilt places and India in particular he respected, implying that if you were blown away by all this, wait until you go there. I soon learnt the codes and the rituals of back backers, they boasted of the most inaccessible places, the most dangerous, of the worst food they were served and almost everyone had a story of an unconventional meal intended to shock, all of which was soon tiresome and I avoided them for the remainder of my trip whenever I could.
What concerned me most was his attitude to Thailand where he would go after making some money and travel with a women. His attitude and complacency at first was both unsettling and titillating, apparently as soon as they arrive, male travelers would be approached by single women who would simply want to act as a companion, frequently without pay wanting only food, travel, a safe place to stay which was sufficient exchange for the sex which in their culture was not such a sacred currency. Was all this true or male fantasy? or just the relentlessly ancient arrogance of power, slavery by any other name.
It was true however that I became conscious of the attention that European looking men received in this country. Understanding the place you occupy in the world, through luck of birth, and its cruel social stratums was a realization that you need to absorb slowly and handle carefully. Poverty tourism is an ugly occupation, I justified myself with the self-belief that I was a photographer and a writer of journals, but this was a lie that couldn’t sustain for long. I was fascinated by the way people lived and stole sad images with my camera which might occupy a place in a second rate travel magazine but more than that I found myself momentarily, in my own mind, someone who was better, richer, healthier than the locals and had the first disgraceful insight into the mind of a colonialist. It was a mindset soon eradicated with my first encounters with Australians who but me in my place very quickly, anyone who thinks an English accent opens doors will soon be very disappointed in most places in the world; that was an education also.
The attention was not always welcome, stepping off a bus and being surrounded by begging children was at first a little shocking but after a while dispiriting, I was relatively poor in England but wealthy here and this fundamental unfairness was wrong and I wish I had been more empathetic. A worse event happened one day when I had visited a temple by the sea and quickly got surrounded by a large party of Chinese teenaged girls who wanted to be photographed in turn with me. The first few were fine and good humored, there was much laughter and excitement, but as my patience waned and my anger inexplicitly rose I indicated that I didn’t want any more, their mood changed in an instant and I received a fair amount of open hostility from the remaining girls. I asked myself what would they do with these photographs and how I would be represented when they got home, but more than that I felt like I was simply an object, I was being used and for a tiny moment had an insight of how many women, and a few men, must feel for almost their entire life. I still sometimes wonder if my image can be found on a faded photograph somewhere in China with a smiling stranger next to me.
I often say today that I long for boredom and the sense of time slowly passing. It was something I found in Bali as I walked around the disorderly villages and on the empty beaches, but it was also a source of deep conflict. Even at that young age I carried a large load of others expectations on my back, and like the elderly Balinese workers I saw in the fields, sometimes my legs felt like they were buckling under that weight. I come from the industrialized world where you must always be doing something or risk the rapid disapproval of your family and your peers. But the problem is that this work-a-holism drags you down when you should be lifted up, we should be free from the insidious corporate whisperers, from the bragging parents, the friends with promise and ambition; that most stifling, hostile question “what do you do?”. Susan Sontag makes the point that when people from the first world go on vacation, they cannot rest, they must be reaching for a camera to justify themselves, to have a project. Shamefully I was no different and my own camera, a prized possession but also a shield and a defense, and I tried unsuccessfully to convince myself that my idleness had a higher purpose.
The two weeks passed quickly but in honesty I was already both in love and in awe of Asia, the nobility and happiness of the people, its sublime landscapes, its complex, rich culture and with a sudden decision my trip to Sydney was shortened so I could spend more time on the return which would take me home via Java where I could get more into the heart of the place and go on more authentic adventures. I’ve been back to Asia many times, some on pleasure more on business, but never to Bali. I see the familiar landscape peeking out from glossy luxury magazines, astounding hotel rates where a single night costs now more than my entire time on the island. Sometimes it’s a good idea to never go back.
Some memories are diaphanous and persistent; others take the form of a rattling slide show with faltering images that you scrutinize with concentration, attempting to understand the person you were at the time, which is how I feel about my first visit to Australia. Almost from the first moment something felt wrong, the sunlight was disconcerting as if the contrast control on a TV was turned up excessively, a solar brilliance which over time bleached the pastel colored walls of industrial buildings and created geometric shadows across the rough sidewalks. There was also a sense of deflation, the result of having travelled to the other side of the world only to find the familiar English stores, Boots the Chemist, Marks and Spencer, W H Smiths or at least some variant of them. Also brands like McDonalds and other fast food restaurants and after several weeks in Bali where I risked the local cuisine, I surrendered to my craving for salt, sugar and fat which was momentary comforting, but which also added to a feeling of resignation and anti-climax for the first few days when I had been expecting excitement.
The first sight of the uneven coast, with its miniature houses and turquoise Ocean was seen, God like, several miles above the ground, my faced pressed to the aircrafts window. The famous bridge and Opera house glimpsed at last as we swung over the city like a victory lap before thudding rudely on the tarmac. A taxi to the cheapest hotel and then a walk predictably to the neat harbor, to the Opera House, somewhat shabbier and smaller than expected when looked at close up, and the Botanical Gardens with its screeching birds overhead, some landing perilously close, flashing their fierce colors and hefty enough to buckle and snap the smaller tree branches. But my first surprise was the age of the buildings; this was a Victorian and Edwardian City with its tight terraced houses, its grand libraries and theatres. I grew up around man-made structures that anchor you to the past, Roman settlements, Neolithic sites, but had miss-imagined the “new world”, the US, Canada, Australia thinking of them as exclusively clean and new.
There is something exhilarating and liberating about being alone in a new city, but also a parallel feeling of being untethered and without direction. I walked endlessly, marveling at the well-kept gardens and the surprising views, sweet neighborhoods, urban hills and city valleys only to find frequently myself lost in more ways than one. My plan was to find a job, and for several weeks before I had left had been to the local library and noted promising companies, and drafted letters and CV’s to be mailed when I arrived, but first I needed a permanent address and a bank account. It didn’t take long to realize it was a vague plan, a halfhearted and overly optimistic. As my goal was to be here for at least four months, I started searching for an apartment, an experience that shook me a little, looking at the photographs of border line slums, my budget wouldn’t stretch far and with resignation took the first decent one I saw. It was in a scruffy neighborhood called Surrey Hills, one where nobody wanted to go to because it was close to downtown, which in those days was almost deserted and considered dangerous, everyone apparently wanted to live in the suburbs. But I could see the inner city was a beautiful, elegant place and beginning to get gentrified, its lovely terraced houses being fixed up largely, and typically, by the gay community and artists. Original details were being put back and the colors of the iron railings and fittings that were authentic and appropriate for the age of the building. I had seen this happening already in London and could also see the immense potential here, shocked by the low prices and abundance of boarded up, semi-ruined properties I remember my inner property developer self desperately wishing I had more money than the five Australian dollars I had in my pocket at the time and the few hundred I had to my name.
The apartment I rented was a single large room, Victorian, high ceilings and tall windows, full of diffused light overlooking a playground managed by nuns. It had the nineteenth century trademarks of dark finished wood around doors, where walls touch ceilings and floors, all painted a dull brown probably sometime in the 1960’s I guessed. To compliment the theme, the wall paper and curtains were also the same sun-faded tone of tobacco as was the large dark wardrobe in the corner. It was surprisingly generous in size and the kitchen was in a sliver of space to the street side, an afterthought, all very nineteen fifties in style, fragile, contemporary now but definitely unloved then. Sunlight filtered in through unwashed windows casting elongated shadows and subtly changing the nature of the room as the long days rolled on. My best decision was to buy a radio and gain a sense of the city and its energy, which bands were playing, the events being announced, even if at the time I enjoyed it only as a self declared outsider.
A foreboding crept on me that I would never be accepted here, that I would have to work to adapt and to bend to their raw, distinct culture to be welcomed in, to integrate, and in truth I had neither the time nor inclination which was entirely my loss. Youthful inexperience and ignorance obstructed me from seeking what lay behind the rough varnish of the Australians, secretly I abhorred the slang, the “blokes”, the G ’day’s” the “no worries” the “streuth’s”. I sensed they were a tight group who had erected an imperceptible barrier, less carefree or as innocent as it sounded; a collectively agreed ultimatum to discard your origins and join their club. Perversely, I was more comfortable as an outsider in Indonesia where at least things were clear, I could never fit in their whether I liked it or not.
Like all great cities, Sydney reveals itself through its architecture. The city’s history can be mapped this way; pride, wealth and insecurity, can all be seen on the faces of the buildings, their intent transparent. Why was I surprised at the architectural diversity? Some gracious others modest, many with elegant archways and gothic windows only to be obscured by carelessly placed hoardings and neon commercial signs. For weeks I would walk around the city like some Hogarthian character, making wryly observations to myself, sometimes photographing the scenes, others jotting down impressions for my diary, always maintaining a safe distance. I would go out frequently at night, occasionally passing the red light district, there was something anarchic and free about the cast of character’s here, the drunkenness, joyful disobedience and sometimes desperation and violence on the street bathed in this oppressive temperature, it was at once lurid and intoxicating. Then just after passing this nineteenth century tableaux, I would veer away from Kings Cross and head to Potts Point, a gorgeous high sliver of land where from one side you could look down on the City, now at this distance neat and proper, on the other the soft flickering lights of the boats in Elizabeth Bay.
I needed a job and had no offers, just a spare collection of rejection letters. Eventually I came across an advertisement in the local newspaper which promised an opportunity to make money at the same time as doing good; collecting money for the quadriplegic society. Joining a line of sorry people about my age, enduring a five minute speech about the hardships of being a quadriplegic I was then given a destination, requiring a train ride to the suburbs to wander alone through empty, neat sundrenched neighborhoods, knocking on doors. Like most unplanned journeys it provided an insight into Australian life that I wouldn’t get any other way. Sometimes climbing over discarded rusted bicycles and toys, at others fearful of frantically barking dogs. Mainly the reception was hostile from older people when they heard my voice, or silence from the fearful Asian women, left by themselves to look after the dark, soundless house, all curtains drawn while their husbands were at work. However I did get some money, much less than most and it felt to me like pity, it wasn’t my finest hour and I have a stark recollection of staring out of a cheap restaurant when I arrived back in Sydney spending my entire days earnings on a simple meal, searching for something in the dark streets and in the unfamiliar box like cars, an image that makes me think of Hooper’s Nighthawks painting. For a moment I had the shameful idea that I would tell people that I did charity work in Australia when I got back, but that was deceit too far.
Already I was planning my escape, to return to Asia and a map of that slim, broken cigar shaped land spawning a multitude of tiny islands was unfolded on the kitchen table. The names of the towns and temples enchanted me, train and bus routes were traced with a pencil line and with thought to my wallet, and my blood flowed faster at the hope of adventure. Australia’s charms did not seduce me that first time, it took several visits and business trips for it to get under my skin, to occasionally appear unexpectedly in dreams unchanged and frozen in time from those early 1980’s and drawing me back whenever I can.
I fell into Jakarta an inch from the eye of a heavy storm and with an ominous foreboding; the plane appeared to be progressively vulnerable to the sudden gusts and squalls, which I rode up and down like a reluctant surfer, gripping the armrest and searching for signals of alarm or reassurance from the other passengers only to find most were asleep, at peace with themselves and their fate. It was a huge consolation to be on firm ground, to find the youth hostel, despite the continual sultry downpour which saturated not just what I was wearing but also the contents of my back pack. Too tired to do anything but find a bed and fall asleep only to be rudely woken in the middle of the night by a contingent of mercenaries, most about my own age, military in appearance but also impertinent with that unceremonious indifference towards the world on the eve of danger. In the morning they were headed to the island of East Timor where there was about to be more bloodshed. It was a thunderous night without much sleep, in the hostel as in the city, there was a lot going on and clear hierarchies existed, there were predators and prey and the potential to be part of the latter was unsaid but real.
There was something more that the thrill of being in a foreign place, of taking in breathtaking landscapes and absorbing unfamiliar cultures, that pulled me towards this part of the world at that time in my life. Everything was different here, not least the contentment of the people who in our material reckoning had comparatively so little. One of the dilemmas of our time I felt was the learned desire for owning things which drove us into jobs that were empty at the end of the day, with their vacuous politics and micro victories, locking us into prisons of our own making. I already lived with the certainty of being swept down that muddy river. I felt a new empathy for the previous generation, the hippies, dropping out of society, the remnants of these were still seen from time to time in these street’s and many turned out to be scruffy, poor ambassadors; my generation was a back lash against these clichéd and ultimately unauthentic philosophers and so they became the subject of ridicule for us. Yet I was still full of doubts about my career, there were no certainties, not knowing if it would end in the gentle waters of an estuary or abruptly over a high waterfall.
There were other pressing questions about the attitude of the people that stuck in my mind, how the apparent calm and peaceful inhabitants could be the conclusion of its turbulent history; driven by natural disasters, conflict over resources, the violence and humiliation of colonialism and the perpetual self-generated cultural and religious shifts. How did this landscape, this history, this geography, these religions, this heat play into the character of the people and how do we from the west cope with this apparent disarming happiness? It was an affront to our philosophies, to our pernicious propaganda’s drummed into us from a young age, from the first steps into schools with moderate to low ambitions the end result leaving us in bland offices staring at computer screens. I’m still shocked at my persistent anger about it, directed at myself mainly for the deep contradictory feeling of not being a hundred percent able to live within the conventions of the business world, and not without them.
There is a vicious beauty about the landscape. It endures and suffers; volcanos, tsunamis, terrorism, disease and earthquakes. From above the land appears to have been hit with a blunt instrument, a giant hand smashing it into seventeen thousand little islands, like shards of broken wine glass on a hard floor, each sliver of fertile earth with their sounds and sweet airs, an earthly paradise waiting for its own Prospero and Miranda.
As usual, it was not bravery but naivety that allowed me to feel a sense of freedom walking around the city, not until much later did I consider the danger I was in. The presence of the pseudo soldiers who left very early might have been a warning to someone more politically astute, but ignorance was a friend then and now. Physically it’s was a mildly schizophrenic city which seems to be the natural outcome of any dictatorship. On one side, huge sums were spent on infrastructure, wide boulevards cutting through the city, grandiloquent government buildings projecting a new and uneasy authority, on the other, the forgotten spaces where the real residents inhabit. The term urban jungle might be a cliché but nothing could describe this side of the city better and you needed to take great care navigating the seemingly haphazard, tight streets. It was impossible to miss the ingenuity of the local people with warehouses of goods piling into the overcrowded sidewalks, the apparent impermanence of the buildings; some constructed of bamboo, others crumbling concrete with plants growing around and through the foundations, reclaiming their kingdom. It was a city growing organically and rapidly, faster I would guess, than planning laws could be written.
General Suharto’s scent of corruption was everywhere and seen in plain sight, the entanglement of electrical power cords like vines on a tree, the shameless theft of power and space like an ever present vulture hovering after a kill. There were complex, symbiotic relationships between store owners that an outsider could not understand and rightful complaints from westerners that there were multiple prices for goods based on who you are, it was even cheerfully joked about sometimes by the vendors. Throughout the city there were man made canals which I quickly realized were open sewers and which in time came to avoid, not because of the smell but because enemies of the state were being murdered and thrown in for all to see, a medieval strategy.
I was happy to leave the city and take a bus journey across Java to see the Buddhist temple of Borobudur. I stayed in a town called Jogjakarta which was a smaller and more ordered place tamed perhaps by Portuguese Colonialism, it was orderly and I’m ashamed to admit helped me feel more at home. It was also near a beach, which was empty due to tidal patterns and lethal undercurrents. At night there was a small hut that would lend you a large round net to catch small crabs that scrambled out of the water and an elderly lady would place them alive in boiling water and serve with rice and a fierce sauce. After eating I would take a walk to watch the sun slip down behind the horizon and feel the rough broken sea shells between my toes.
Borobudur was built in the ninth century and functioned as a center of Buddhist spiritual life until the fourteenth when Islam took over the affections of the Indonesian people and the place was then claimed by the jungle for five hundred years, existing only in the stories and mystical narratives of the locals. It shared a similar fate as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, re-discovered by Europeans and largely freed from the entanglements of nature, only now to be devoured by tourists thanks to budget airlines. I was there long before that and had the place almost to myself if you ignore the Indonesian school parties to whom I was at least of comparable interest. Few could guess that a blind Muslim, Husain Ali Habsyie was already planning a successful campaign for it to be bombed in 1986, three years later. Still, I find myself completely unafraid of being in Islamic countries, there is a spiritualism which surfaces from a powerful shared belief system, a combined sense that what will happen is pre-ordained, and also a respect and curiosity towards strangers. It was lucky to have seen the temple in this moment, while it was free of tourists, the benign peaceful faces on the sculptures frozen for eleven hundred years but alive in the faces seen on the street and I thought that I recognized many of the passengers sleeping on the terrifying plane trip. Had I taken more time, or had the patience I might have learnt some life’s lessons from these friezes, but it is hard to look at ancient art now, with our layers of education, our learned cynicism and I feel that there is an arrogance to claim that you can go back and understand this art, see it through the eyes’ of its makers and sponsors.
The end happened quickly, as often happens when money runs out, my last notes spent on a bus ride towards Jakarta without a seat forcing me to squat in the aisle to the amusement of the other passengers who laughed at this sudden slice of democracy. Then I was dropped inexplicably a mile from the airport on a dusty road which was apparently an act of kindness by the driver. A long wait for the flight which passed like a twenty hour dream from that succulent, wild island to my own dull grey one. Then suddenly in Heathrow reality was faced not quite with tears, but with an overwhelming sadness, not for the first or last time.