I’ve been visiting the Black Cat Fitzroy for as long as I can remember. The first time I came to this bohemian dive was sometime around 1988. It has managed to reinvent and reinvigorate itself, perhaps a little more than I have. It was one of the original cafes in the district that helped build the artsy Brunswick Street of today. I come here every Sunday and chill and listen to some good Sunday arvo music. A legendary institution.
Late last year, I returned to Ecuador in South America on snug annual leave to revisit that agreeable country. I was there for just over a week, which was admittedly, a bit ‘loco’ considering I spent about a similar amount of time on aeroplanes getting there.
Flying over so much rich geo-cultural context like a Modern, instrumentalist corpse in a cheap-tin-coffin aeroplane was almost worth it to visit Quito, Cuenca, and my Ecuadorian mates again. I say almost worth it because it was frustrating not being able to explore and unpack some of the curious cultural layers and geography in Ecuador. I was restricted to the urban areas and did not see the jungle nor the coast, two regions of Ecuador I have yet to explore.
And, in Ecuador, a country where over 90% of the population has some degree of indigenous heritage, they celebrate Columbus day as a national holiday 600 years after contact. Sure it has been “indigenised”, but they do not deny this history, it is what they are, contradictions and all.
As one of my favourite Australian historians once said, it is as though Australians cannot hold two (contradictory) ideas in their head at the same time; especially regarding our national ‘Australia Day” holiday it seems (which is held upon the date the first fleet came to Australia from ‘Modernity’ in 1788).
Many Indigenous South Americans have appropriated ‘Spanishness’ and utilise it as a form of identity and resistance in a world dominated by slavish consumer conformity. Perhaps Captain Cook could also become a symbol of resistance to a much more pervasive and destructive form of contemporary Modernity.
I have been riding a perfunctory and rather average Suzuki GS500 for close to 10 years now. In fact, I like them so much, that this is my third one. I rode a GS every day in London for three years, which was some of the best bus-dodging moto-riding of my life, and I have had two in Melbourne.
They are robust, nimble and forgiving of bad riding, they hardly ever need servicing, they are skinny enough to negotiate peak hour traffic, and big enough to escape the city on weekends (unless there is a headwind). They aren’t particularly powerful, but as a daily beat-the-city-grind bike, you can’t go wrong. You could possibly do a circuit of Australia on one of these things, at least this is what I tell myself as I manoeuvre the Benthamite grid of humanity as I ride home each night.
When I got back from travelling, one of my most immediate goals was to buy a new bike. But not an average bike and certainly not a 125cc. I dreamed of my future bike while riding through a sand storm on the way to Lima in Peru (the bike had slowed to walking pace, and I couldn’t see more than 100 metres ahead). At this time I imagined that my next ride was going to be the largest cc moto I could afford, something with about ten times the power of the 125cc.
So with what little money that I had when I returned, I went out and bought a BMW 1150 RT, an older model with a lot of kilometres on the clock, but still, a beautiful ride, something like driving a luxury car. I did a bunch of country rides and a long ride to Sydney with my friend David on the back, but the love affair with the BMW was to be short lived, as it turned out to be a Charleton and a one-trick pony.
In reflection, I’m am not sure what I was thinking, buying a BMW whale, it was a trophy bike for some other game. It was impossible to maintain, difficult to get between the fat traffic, and tricky to park on the footpath without maiming children. What finally ended the affair was a mere flat battery. Replacing the battery required taking the fairing and petrol tank off, a task that took me half a day, and even then, the battery cost as much as a Llama.
So after three months, the BMW was sold for a considerable loss, and I purchased a bullet proof Suzuki GS 500, the third one I have owned, the most reliable, robust, and minimalist bike around. I spent three years riding a GS 500 around London and I have owned two in Melbourne. I ride it almost every day, and it is socially flexible, unlike the BMW that was stuck in a fast lane to tears.
This is such a wonderful story, incredibly inspirational. But when do you stop?
“And I just don’t think as humans we’re programmed to reach a point where we’re happy with our lot. We always want more. And so I suppose at the end of the trip I realised it hadn’t really achieved anything and how I was still in the same mess as when I set off”
Returning home to a semblance of normality from a journey that rattles one’s bones takes very a long time indeed. In fact, I was in a Fitzroy bar the other night and a nice young chap, who claimed to be an expert on these things, suggested that it would take two years! It has been a year and a half since I got off my cherished 125cc moto, so I am almost ‘there’ I suppose, whatever ‘there’ means.
The main problem with integrating back into Modernista society after a monumental break is that one becomes a messenger, an outsider, an intruder and a stranger. One’s identity changes greatly through the serious engagement with the world and people find it difficult to accept your new hard-won identity as you do theirs. Many people not only fear the world and its people but they also fear those who have had the courage to engage with it on their own terms.
Whilst walking to a cafe for lunch the other day, waiting for the autocratic pedestrian crossing to signal approval, I overheard a rotund, flustered man mumbling about an altercation with a colleague over an office tea-bag. I thought to myself, ‘why does this man exist?’ ‘I wish he would disobey the authority of the pedestrian crossing and suffer at the hands of Modernism’.
It has been a very tough year and a half and along with many people, my global soul has taken a beating. There are a lot of people out there with weak identities who demonise others and aggressively cling to the most reductive and imaginary things at the expense of others. I hope that I haven’t been the beneficiary of a golden age of independent travel and from here on in it is “us and them over and over and over again”.
The use of social software while traveling can either enhance travel or diminish it, depending on the meaning and frequency of the messages. It has become super-easy to send messages to friends or family from almost anywhere in the world, but this shouldn’t be similar to sending an everyday message from a café or bar close to where you live. Exploring the world independently is a major undertaking that comes with a whole set of new perspectives, challenges, and responsibilities. It is important to communicate these in a meaningful way and be considerate of your audience who may not understand the context in which you are writing.
The first thing to consider is the frequency of your messages. Yes, it is important to stay in touch with people when you are away, but this shouldn’t be too regular, maybe every week or two is enough, depending on the length and nature of the journey. If you post messages too often, your audience becomes accustomed to it, demanding more of your time and focus when you could be doing much better things. Frequent, bumptious messages from far-away places may also alienate your audience in an online medium with many competing, everyday concerns (and they may ditch you, then you will really be off the grid).
Posting undue, expeditious messages also means you have less time to think about and craft your message, so you are more likely to send shallow self-indulgent snaps of you sitting in a hammock or swimming on a palm-tree-infested beach as though every country of the world, other than your own, only exists for the narrowest of Euro-centric pursuits (in Australia in the 1970s this was called the ‘ocker fantasy’ and we have a whole genre of films of Aussie blokes on beaches in Queensland chasing blonde, scantily clad girls, so if this is your idea of the world, it has been done before so no need to broadcast it again).
Another consideration is the significance of the message. If you only blog or publish a set of photos ever week or two you have time to choose the most significant things you did in this period and reflect upon and write about them. Did you learn anything new; about the world, about yourself (be honest, dark and light and shadows)? Was it humorous, risky, rewarding, or dull? Everyone has a unique perspective, but it may take a while to find it, through reading, through talking to nice, or not-so-nice, people and through challenging and extending yourself by doing activities you wouldn’t normally do. What ‘normalised’ cultural perspective of the world are you traveling with, are you learning through un-learning, are you traveling with too many pre-conceived, instrumentalist ambitions. I come from the world’s ‘most civilised, uncivilised country’ to paraphrase the Australian Modernist painters of the 1940s and 50s and some countries do have more culture and less modernity than us but they also have more bacteria in their cheese that will make you sick.
There is a reason that most people don’t travel, in search of better cheese. They are scared of the bacteria that will make them sick and are satisfied by the cheese that will make them fat (like the orange cheese in the US). It is the orange cheese people you don’t want on your social feed every day, they will stress you out!