Pacifica Journals Part VI: Homeward

** **

Mar 15: Brisbane

This is our last day in Australia. We leave late tonight, back to Hong Kong and the start of a hellish return trip.

The last few days we’ve settled into the routine of semi-permanent Brisbane residents. We pick up groceries and know the streets without directions and can ride the CityCat into the downtown district. We’ve spent a lot of time at small get-togethers, barbies and family gatherings, eating food and drinking beer and wine and laughing together. I’ve settled into this breezy air of comfortable domesticity, almost suburban acceptance.

It didn’t start off like that immediately.

On our first day back from New Zealand we drove the Hyundai down the coast to Surfer’s Paradise. We parked the car in a pay spot and then stood in line at McDonalds for chicken wraps and cokes.

The surf was blown by a strong wind and chopped to froth with sucking currents and the lifeguard flags were red. No swimming today. Instead we lounged on the shady beach (our towels threatening to lift away by that same wind) and watched groups of Asians dance around and snap photos in front of the waves. Overall the place stunk of commercialization – instead of a crisp ocean scent and the cry of gulls it was the stench of diesel and the groan of construction cranes, erecting a new high-rise. And to top it off, we got a ticket ($35) for parking over 2 hours in our spot. We were pissed and left immediately.

That night we went out for dinner and drinks with Diane and her sister Michelle. They took us to a hip gentrified district of nightclubs, tat parlors and flashiness. We ate at this pan-Asian place called Garuva. We had to remove our shoes and slide under the table on the padded floor, the privacy of a thin translucent white cloth surrounding us.

The food was decent, if a bit scattershot – our meal spanning everything from Thai chili prawns to sweet potato casserole to beef stew to Japanese chicken fingers. Our server wore his hair back in braids with a wide leather headband, ankle length denim shorts and hiking boots, and I made the foot-in-mouth comment “What’s with the get up?” thinking it was some sort of pan-Asian sheepherder outfit (to fit the theme of the place) and he chuckled awkwardly and said “its just me…” The girls burst out laughing and I turned red for long minutes and wondered if I’m really insensitive.

We finished off the night at an upscale desert bar in a shopping plaza called Emporium where gleaming Beamers and Benzes pulled up to drop off young girls in designer dresses and handbags. I had to explain a White Russian to the server and I felt out of place in my boring conservative khakis and buttoned shirt, around all these dudes in designer Ts and jeans, violent tats and weightlifter arms.

Driving around Brisbane, I felt overwhelmed by all of America’s ugly exports that have taken root here – strip malls, fast food and highways. Even pop music and the branding of commercial products feels exported from the States.

And it made me wonder why that alien culture had been adopted and planted so well, like a virulent infection. Perhaps the happy-go-lucky, nonchalance of Aussies enabled it to grow hold.

Fortunately, there’s still some accessible authenticity. Diane’s neighborhood is a great example – colorful wooden houses, brightly painted blue or yellow, up on stilts to survive a flooding river, swaddled in flowering vegetation and noisy tropical birds.

Of course, parked in those garages are usually expensive cars, and it’s a shame that to live in a neighborhood with some aesthetic individuality, access to parks and mass transit is such a luxury.

But I don’t think we can ever return to that dream of happy suburbia. The world is large and there are probably too many people in it. For the middle class masses it will be soul sucking strip malls, clogged highways and cookie cutter neighborhoods.

I read a book called Collapse by Jared Diamond on this trip and have been thinking a lot about conservation and our approach to natural beauty. We can exploit it for short term profit – commercialization like they’ve done with Surfer’s Paradise. Or we can use it wisely, allow reasonable usage and tourism – the approach of conservation like in Fiordland National Park. It’s impossible for any part of the world to remain virgin. And increasingly, we’re all connected, through globalization and technology, and any niches of commercialization could drown us all.

These are sobering notions, and perhaps I’ve always known them as facts, but hadn’t felt them in my core. If my trip to Europe was about realizing the grandeur of human history and progress, this one is about realizing our limits and our folly.

We wake up at the crack of dawn for waterskiing on the Brisbane River. Two of Diane’s friends, both pilots, own a small speed boat and thousands of dollars of equipment – booms and ropes and wetsuits and wakeboards and slalom skis. But the device that gets the most ride time is a 5$ cut plywood disc. You angle it under your feet (wakeboard style) and have the rope pull you up. Once you get going, you can awkwardly steer and do cool little 360 spins. The guys do “round the world” on the glossy brown water, the boat swinging the rider wide and then changing direction, the momentum carrying them through a full rotation. Then they catch the wake and are sent on hilarious crashes.

As the sun rises the river is beautiful, smooth water steaming up, trees on the banks, brown cows ruffaging through pastures up the hill. Australia certainly has its share of beautiful trees.

After we eat a delicious breakfast (bacon and sausage and fried eggs with flat white coffees) and then go home for naps.

In the early evening, we drive out to the suburbs for another get-together, bats flocking by the hundreds towards Brisbane’s skyline at sunset over neon highways. Out to a nested suburb, cul-de-sacs and maze streets, to a new house with an enormous foyer and kitchen, a pool with designer landscaping, a long hardwood table piled with hour’ devours on the patio.

We drink beer and eat pizza and laugh. There’s no talk of dire times or world politics or religion – just old stories of kids and card games and wild nights at the bar. At the heart of it, Aussies are simply people who know how to enjoy themselves and be content with life.

The party wanes and its time for the little girl to go to bed, she holds her daddy’s hand. She looks up and points her tiny finger at the bold light in the night sky and whispers “moon”.

Mar 16: The Longest Day

In the span of this day we travel halfway across the globe, two hemispheres, the vast black expanse of the Pacific. Retracing our journey in reverse, like a rewind, as though the trip is being vacuumed up into limbo, the half-conscious awareness of the 747’s drone at some awful hour.

We get a day room in Hong Kong to sleep away the layover, from early morning to evening, the cable cars continually ascending the smudged hills, the haze outside the window seeping away, the sun drenching everything in golden wash. Down below, school boys place soccer and basketball in their uniforms.

We stock up on supplies for the day in a supermarket – cheese and crackers and peanut butter, overripe fruit salad amongst all the dried sea life, mushrooms and noodles. I remark that the city won’t be complete until every inch of land has been transformed into a shopping mall – all shiny marble floors and escalators.

Another 11 hours to America, greeted with the glaring eye of customs, reading my past record (returning from Amsterdam), and there are agonizing moments while we await his verdict, his little red and blue stamp of approval. Steph complains but I let her know it’s not the people but the system that’s broken.

A meal at McDonalds to welcome me back, and none of the swooping graceful and clean lines of Hong Kong or Brisbane airports. LAX is claustrophobic, dirty and ugly. We bite the bullet and get another hotel room for a few hours of sleep and a shower. Then it’s a 6 AM flight back to Atlanta and home.

Thinking back on the trip, its hard to point a singular narrative or epiphany, but there are a few threads. My own insignificance as a single person in the world, my own personality shortfalls and the need to obtain presence. The reach of globalization, and before it, the stretch of the British Empire (globalization 1.0).

That first taste of Asia sticks with me as the most “new”. The way they approach societal problems with a hive-like mentality, the scent of strange food on humid breezes, even the shape of their characters, architecture, aesthetics. And all the young kids in westernized designer brands and shiny new cell phones, mute and clicking away at buttons on the mass transit. Will the 21st century belong to China?

Then the laid-back nonchalance of the Aussies and Kiwis, those with ambition or success almost an exception to the average, but all of the time partaking – smiling and happy – cold beer on a sunny lawn by the river.

And then finally the approaches to land management and natural resources throughout the world. The dense clustering and untouched mountains of Hong Kong and its islands. Or the sprawling highways of Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Perhaps the Aussies experience a better quality of life with the laissez faire approach to real estate, but in America or Australia, Hong Kong’s pristine green hills would be choked with streets and cliff-clinging mansions.

There are probably too many people in the world, and if we cling to our stubborn individualism, we’ll all suffer a tragedy of the commons, each in our own cookie-cutter gated communities (or tenement slums) and nothing else.

I also think I’m ready to stake out a tiny corner of the world to build it into a home. Some place small, with a vegetable garden and old trees. For a time, the wanderlust has been quenched. I can see in a way, those eternal travelers will never be satisfied as they devour the alien and the foreign. There is no mythical land – we are all human and flawed and our societies attempt to address that eternal problem with more or less success. But if the traveler never settles down and contributes to a society – he is the ultimate consumer, only eating bite-sized chunks of culture and beauty and never working to create some of his own.

Steph and I certainly had some adventures on this trip – memories we’ll remember the rest of our lives. The time we both quit our jobs and spent a month touring Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

In the tiny shower in the hull of the S.V. Whitehaven, we both rinse under the pump water, clean white light through the port hole, and we look at each other and we are both exposed and there’s nothing to do but giggle, smile, and take the plunge.

[Part I]([Part II]([Part III]([Part IV]([Part V]([Part VI](