August-September 96

Melbourne, 5.aug.MVMI

From Catherine, I hitched a ride to Alice Springs. It was one helluva 20-hour stretch, '20-hour' because we nearly ran out of fuel at 3 am and had to wait 4 hours for the only petrol station within 75 miles to open, and 'helluva' because of the circumstances of the ride, which being a 1975 Ford Cortina overly thirsty for leaded gasoline and owned by an American girl named Pam. So sorry, not Pam, Paaaaam, with the flaaaatest aaaaaccent you caaaaan maaaanage. Pam's toiletry kit was the size of my pack, thanks to which her hair was also the size of my pack. And Pam and I argued about every topic which came between us, without malice, but without cease and certainly without result. Her opinions were not merely different from mine, they were -- and I say this in the most sincere possible way -- wrong. Now, when dumb people say dumb things, I leave it alone. What else should dumb people say? But Pam wasn't dumb, I felt she should know better, and by the time we arrived in Alice, I was argued-, driven-, and burnt-out. I needed more than the cigarettes I had quit two days before, I needed sleep. So in Alice, I got myself a dorm bed, and flopped into it.

Thus given the quantity and quality of the fatigue I brought with me to that bed, you can imagine my silent frustration with the guy in the bunk above me who was holding a loudly shouted and deeply personal conversation with the fellow a few beds over regarding the comparative private and social habits of various women at their common place of employment. I wanted to kill them both, but seeing as it was 10 am, and it was their room first, and I didn't feel confrontational enough to commit a felony at that point in time, besides which convention holds that it's all right to make noise during the day, I simply lay there exhausted from the drive and its company, listening to the voices sharing other people's deep and uninteresting secrets with an air of licentious complicity that belied the dullness of their words. And when they did at last leave me in peace, I could no longer sleep, so I headed into town to scope out the scene.

Alice was nice enough. I walked all over her, scouted out her very adequate public library, fetished a few of her bookstores bookstores, and then eventually wended my way into her pub scene before calling it a night. I went to bed at around 12:30... and woke up at 6 am. Not because I wanted to wake up, mind you, heavens no, but because once again the chap above me disrupted my hibernation schedule: he snored. He snored. He snored with more force and tonal range than I'd yet encountered in all my many years of occasional dormitory living. he snored. Each sinal paroxysm contained within it a full narrative structure, beginning with the introduction, a sort of repeating, inhaled F-F-F sound which built in power and volume to the explosive onset of cacophonous climax, a gurgling, bubbling naso-flatulation of amazing texture which he maintained in each instance to the limit of its dramatic effect before bringing it to its denouement as a fading series of p-p-p whimpers, after which there ensued regularly a brief pause while his subfacial systems of caves and rivers retooled themselves to start the process anew. People in Bangladesh and San Francisco complain earthquakes; they've got nothing on whatever organisms may have been living in this guy's nose. Perhaps I'm not making myself clear here: this guy snored. Olympically. The sounds he produced were downright alien, as though each act of respiration involved forcing a pressurized gas through a perforated hose submerged within several tanks of differently viscous liquid wherein some sort of extraterrestrial naval battle was already raging with apocalyptic might. Imagine the sound of a punctured balloon, flupping flattaly in its mortal spiral... then immerse both you and it in a large aquarium full of burning honey... which image might give you some partial inkling of the caliber of the noise we're talking about, but which says nothing of its physical force, a power of such nuclear magnitude as to actually make me itch from the vibrations it propagated down the bedframe and through my mattress.

I lay there for a spell, flashing back "why me"-ly to the morning prior, and thinking that perhaps I had done something noisy and bad in a past life, that maybe I'd once long ago invented the alarm clock, thereby enslaving the world and for which I was now being repaid, that this ululant squall above me was my personal penance, and that no one else in the room could hear it. But sooner than later, the French guy in the bed across from mine disproved my theory, and very cleverly, I might add. He suddenly sat bolt upright in his bed, stretched his pajama-clad arms wide, and then threw his hands together into a loud clap, clearly intended to surgically extinguish the snores without raising an undue ruckus of his own, to eliminally distinguish between snoring and sleeping. It was clever, but unsuccessful, as so many clever things are (particularly when they're French). And I wish our alphabet were advanced enough to more properly represent the thunderous sounds that the Thor-spawn above me kept broadcasting, for if it could, I would employ it here to present you with the response that the French clap received.

But ever persevering (remember how they held Paris in 1940?) my buddy from Reims tried again. And again. And now that advanced alphabet would come in really handy to show how their little dialogue was going: clap!, snore. Clap!, snore. CLAP!, snore... and so on. Eventually the Frenchman stopped clapping and sat pensively, trying to think of another method, and maybe wondering if perhaps it wasn't he who had invented the alarm clock so long ago... So to disperse his karmic doubts (fair's fair), I let him know that I was clued into and part of the predicament at hand. I grabbed ahold of the bunk bed frame and shook it with all my tired might, but still to no effect: his sinuses already had the bed tremoring far more than I could nonhernially hope to overcome, and his consciousness seemed thoroughly embedded within its self-erected barrier of motion and noise. That's actually a smart trick, that by inuring yourself to such a thick cushion of your own brouhaha, you render your sleep unassailable by outside disturbances... but it accounts nothing for those around you, and so we continued to battle. I shook, the Frenchman clapped, and soon his wife pitched in, employing the subtle psychological tool of laughter in an attempt to shame our gurgling friend into silence. And we four made quite a symphony, let me assure you, but still and alas, to no avail.

I tried tugging on his sheets. Nothing.

The French guy shined a flashlight in his eyes. Nothing.

Mrs. French continued to laugh. Still nothing.

In a way it was sort of fun, the three of us conspiring to deprive my rambunctious bunkmate of what he was using to deprive us of what he so audibly had, and as our complicity escalated, so did our tactics. Soon we were poking, and not long thereafter, openly shaking our adversary, as we gradually cast aside our concerns for his slumberous repose... but he would not wake up.

At last, god knows how, he did seem to take some sort of transomnolescent hint, and with a dwindling, whisping "FFF-FF-F-f-f-" he lapsed into silence. We three gaped at each other by flashlight in a sort of shocked victorious amazement, issued a silent cheer of solidarity, and returned to our beds.

But such victories, where the conquered foe doesn't even know he's been challenged, and are won by means independent of the victors' struggle, never last long.

"-f-f-F-FF-FFF-(((((... ," the guy above me said not five minutes later, like some kind of demoniacal gramophone coming to life after a power outage, and a collective moan went up from the assembled crowd. Now we wasted no time. Faster than you can recite the Cyrillic alphabet with a Bantu accent, we were shaking him vigorously, right off the bat, in a sort of aggressive reunion of mutuality descended upon this deep deep sleeper. But still again, with no result. Rip Van Winkle slept like New York compared to this guy.

Ultimately I acquiesced, returned to my bed, and tried to convince myself that I liked the snoring, that it was a soothing, comforting sound, that it reminded me of the womb. And at last I did find my way into periodic bouts of semi-slumber. But in trying to align myself with the clamor coming from above, I also apparently sold out part of my soul, for my light dreaming was full of echoing gurgles and snuffling snorts. They weren't even dreams, really, but were more abstract vignettes of snore-induced whimsy, occasionally involving explosions and earth-moving equipment; often pregnant with inchoate images accompanied by thunderous soundtracks; in one episode I played the role of an underqualified plumber; and I had one very postmodern dreamscape sequence regarding what words could possibly describe the sensory input that I, as his bunkmate, was subjected to; while between these semilucid interludes, I lay awake as I had the previous afternoon, simply trying to ignore the racket, while the industrial-strength disciple of Zeus above me snored and snored and snored.

I thought, "there must be a key to this lock," and indeed there was. At 8:30 I heard a faint beeping sound, a tiny electronic tinkle which, like a ray of starlight penetrating across eons of darkness, reached through the void and gently prodded my overhead friend to wakefulness. It was his watch alarm clock, which I was now wishing I had invented, and before it could beep even three times he stirred, turned it off, and hopped out of bed. The Frenchman and I glanced at each other incredulously.

My erstwhile bunkmate, now on his feet and dressing spryly, noticed my open, watchful eyes and wished me a good morning with the chipper voice of a soundly rested mind.

"Sleep well last night?" I asked him.

"Like a baby," he answered in his downunder drawl.

"Did you know," put in the Frenchman, "that you are very noisy at night?"

"Oh yeah," came the response, "I snore like a pig. Did it bother 'ya?"

We related briefly the lengths to which we had gone to quiet him. He looked not a bit embarrassed. "No, you wouldn't've been able to wake me up," he said, and now fully dressed, added, "Sorry guys. Well, catch 'ya later."

He left, and in the beauty of the silence that followed, the Frenchman and I exchanged one last glance before turning over in our respective beds and going to sleep.

Melbourne, 6.sept.MVMI

I just spent a great month in Melbourne. I arrived on a Friday night at about 12:30, the end of a two-day journey in a 1975 Ford Transit van with wood-paneled interiors and three very cool veterinary students on their ways home from a month's internship in Alice Springs. It was a fun ride, much more pleasant than my journey with Paaaaaam, and once we had arrived in their home town, they were very happy to take me first to a liquor store (which in Australian is a "bottle shop"), and then to my friend Morry's house. To-door service, friendly good-byes, and there I stood in front of Morry's door with a case of Victoria Bitters on my shoulder, my pack at my feet, and my finger positioned over the doorbell. I took a breath and pushed the button.

Morry is an interesting guy. Originally from Melbourne, he and my sister had met 8 years prior when they were living on adjacent Kibbutzes in Israel. They became friends and traveled through Europe together after their Kibbutz experiences had ended. Five years later, he came to the US for the wedding of his best friend, and stayed with me for a while in Chicago. He was a fun guest, one who came equipped with intelligence, humor, energy, and lots and lots of Victoria Bitters, or VB.

"How much of this stuff did you bring here with you?" I had asked him.

"Four slabs," he said, his voice echoing through the can he held to his lips.

"You brought four cases of beer into the United States?" I asked. "How'd you do that?"

"Overhead compahtment," he replied with a smile.

When he had left Chicago, I thought I might not see him ever again. But a year later, in upstate New York, he surprised me at a dinner party. I was sitting at the table, after a satisfying meal of good food, good wine, and good marijuana, when with a sudden thud, a bottle of tequila, my drink of choice, landed on the table next to me. I looked at it. The neck of the bottle seemed to be connected to a fist of some kind. That fist joined to an arm, and at the end of that arm was Morry! Wow. It was his birthday that night, a mutual friend from the area had warned him that I'd be around, and he was keen to celebrate both my arrival and the anniversary of his birth. I helped him out, and much merriment was had by all. The following day he and I drove to Toronto together, where we had said our final farewells.

But that had been a year ago, and here in Melbourne I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I heard the bell inside the house, I heard the lock click open, and there stood Morry, surprised to find me on his doorstep and thirstily eyeing the slab of beer on my shoulder.

"Hi," I said, "I'm in Australia."

"Hi," he said, extending his hand, "I'm Morry Hayman. Can I give you a hand with that beer?"

And with that, I moved into his house for a month.

It was a truly painless arrangement. Morry and I got along great, and I became friends with his roommate Karen as well. After so many years on the road, I've gotten really good at being a guest, at staying out of my hosts' way, and making my residential encroachment as transparent as possible. The way their apartment is laid out I posed no obstacle to their routines by sleeping on the couch, and I tidied up the house each morning before I went out. But more than that, it felt good to be really living somewhere for a while, with a series of tram passes and my own key. I had plenty to occupy me in Melbourne, in terms of writing and exploring, and I spent many of my days taking advantage of both the university's facilities and the Victoria State Library. At night, I found no shortage of bars to visit, neighborhoods to explore, or people to meet, and the three of us, Morry, Karen and I, lived very happily together. We congregated every few nights to watch the Simpsons and Seinfeld, and on Sunday mornings for a group feast, plus other sundry activities we planned throughout the week, but at no point did I feel in their way or unwelcome. We each had our places to be.

One event which I joined Morry for every Saturday was footy, Australian rules football, a pastime about which Morry is fanatic, and which I came to thoroughly appreciate as well. It's an incredible game, really, much better than American football, because while in the States the game is very rigid and stilted, full of time-outs and line-ups, the Aussie version has released many of the strictures of play, making it a fast-paced, subjectively umpired game. Every field in the league is a different shape and size; there are no clock-stops and regroupings; and the referees are free to make up rules as it suits their sense of fair play, resulting in a fast-paced game full of turnovers and suspense with very little time for boredom or commercials. American football is like medieval warfare, with trumpets and formations; footy is guerrilla, and a more exciting game to watch.

Morry and I saw each other quite a bit during my stay in his city, but most nights I went out without him. Rick was in Melbourne, too, and although he couldn't stay with me, we convened most evenings to explore the town's offerings. Together, as is our pattern, we found some truly strange people out there. We met Ant and Suz, a couple who frequented a bar near Rick's hostel. Suz was a beautiful girl who seemed at once both contemplatively smart and completely empty. She filled her soul with Ant, a very intelligent but highly suspicious character with the hardened face and vibe of a former junkie, one of those guys who can talk his way into or out of anything, and who rambles on continuously in a verbal blur of witty nothingnesses. He was a real talker, the kind you really have to watch, and absolutely not to be trusted. We went out with them a couple of times, to several very different bars of their choosing. Throughout, largely thanks to Ant's loquacious banterisms, the conversations rolled and pitched with ease, but always with a disquieting undercurrent of mistrust from all sides. It was an entertaining enough dynamic for a while, but when one night Rick and I came back to our table from a game of pinball to find that they had left the bar, I felt no need to pursue them. Melbourne is a big city, and there were plenty of other people to meet.

A few days later Rick and I met a group of people who seemed to be pretty cool. One of them, a girl named Jen, was studying defense law, a topic I'm very interested in, and I asked her if she minded talking about the law in a bar environment. "Of course not!" she said, "I love talking law." And so we did, conversing mostly about the differences between the Australian and American legal systems, and the various justifications for each system's tenets. But she only seemed capable of discussing it from a theoretical standpoint. Every time I tried to apply the concepts we discussed to real situations, or to how she felt about them in terms of their application to her personally, she changed the subject. I pushed it a little, trying to draw her out a bit, and she literally drew a line on the floor with the tip of her shoe. "I don't wanna talk about this," she said. I agreed, we changed the subject, but always, I found myself more interested in how the law actually applied and worked than its theoretical intent. And every time I tried to bring reality into the conversation, she would again literally inscribe that line in the floor. Finally I asked her, "Why don't you want to consider yourself in relation to your system of government?" Her toe one more made its left-to-right journey through the barroom muck. "That line is a dangerous thing," I told her. She drew it again. "The law is for people, not for government," I went on. She drew it again. "And as a defense lawyer, you'll need to help people apply it to themselves, to help people with their..." And as she finished drawing that line for the final time, she turned and walked away, leaving me standing in front of a very clear, straight barrier carved into the sludge of the floor. I stepped right across it and went to the bathroom.

Meeting people in places like Melbourne bars is exactly one of my favorite things about traveling. Without the restraint of mutual friends, knowing that I'll likely never see most of the people I meet again, and confident in my own views, I feel free to say what I think. I rarely launch an outright attack, but I as rarely accept bullshit from strangers. With Jen, I felt very comfortable challenging her reluctance to fathom the depth of her impending career. I paid no price by offending her, and I felt I had an important point to make. And of course, the flipside of this freedom is my ability to choose to accept information from people with vastly different views from my own without any trace of judgment or disapproval.

For example, Rick, Morry and I had gone to see a band called the Fuck-Fucks at the Prince of Wales, a very popular Melbourne night spot. After the show I met Rob, a nice-looking fellow with a handsome face and a blonde ponytail. I asked him what he did for a living.

"I'm about to get my prostitute's license," he told me.

I looked at him levelly without a flinch. "That's cool," I said, "how'd you decide to get into that?"

Rob was a very open person. "Well, I recently went to a prostitute for the first time, and I was shocked at how impersonal it was. I mean, I went there because I didn't want to deal with the politics and hassle of picking up girls that night, but she was so businesslike, so eager just to make me come, and I wasn't satisfied at all. So a few nights later, I went to another one." I was nodding my head encouragingly, wanting him to feel comfortable in sharing this information. He didn't seem to have any hang-ups about it though. He went on. "I went to another one, and she at least massaged me for a little while, but then, without asking if I wanted her to stop massaging me, she just got right down to business like the other one, and I was really turned off. So I thought to myself, I could do this so much better, I could be so much more... so much more service-oriented about it, and so I looked into it. And I found out that I could make some really good money at it, too, so I applied for the license."

"But what if you get some really disgusting people who want you to do gross things to them?"

"Well, it's $175 for an hour, so I figure that the only people who could afford it would be like me, just normal people who don't want to deal with a relationship. And I can always ask them to take a shower or something, but if they want to talk, I'll just talk. If they want more, I'll try to give them what they need. I think I'd be really good at it."

"Cool," I responded. And then, "But suppose you get a 90-year-old women who hasn't washed in 50, and she wants you to lick her asshole or something? Where do you draw the line between good service and bad practice?"

I could see his forehead wrinkle in thought before he answered. "That's a good point," he said. "I should get a big sheet of latex I can use as a barrier. But like I said, if that's what they want..."

I was really impressed with his desire to please at such an extreme level. "Well, it sounds to me like you're the right man for the job," I told him.

"I hope so," he said. "We'll see how it goes."

"What if you go to make your call and it's a guy?" I asked.

"No." He was firm on this one. "That's not my job, but I'll carry around some numbers so I can steer people in the right direction if necessary."

Morry and Rick had in the meantime prepared to leave. I got up to go. "Good luck," I told him. And I went home.

About a week later I ran into him again at the same bar.

"How's tricks?" I asked.

He smiled. "Well, I got my license, and a couple of guys from the state came over with a huge container full of condoms and lubricant and some slides of genital diseases. So now I'm ready to go. Gotta get a pager and an ad in the paper. But I did a test run the other night."

"How's that?"

"I went to a bar I've never been to before and picked up the fattest, ugliest girl I could find. I took her home, just to see if I could invest myself in it, if I could make her happy and, you know, if I could, like, get it up."


"No problem." He smiled again, an even grin of perfect teeth. "I think I'm gonna like this job."

I met lots of other people in bars and at the university during my month in Melbourne. I met a guy named Brett who attributed his pool playing ability to the fact that, as he put it, "I go with God." I went out a few times with a girl named Rebecca, a drama student who was way too dramatic for my tastes,and who cried alot during normal converations about whings that usually don't make people cry. I met a Korean exchange student whom I eventually had to stop going out with because he kept trying to buy me things because he had no friends in Melbourne, despite the fact that we really didn't like each other that much. After he couldn't understand my explanation that purchasing power isn't the way to make and keep friends, I stopped returning his calls. But I also met many very interesting people using Melbourne's transit systems.

The cabs in Melbourne are all very clean, and the drivers wear uniforms. After the trams close, taxis and walking are the only options, and since the drivers like you to sit in front, I got my share of cab culture during those rides. One guy I had was from Mauritius, and had been living in Australia for 40 years. "When I came here," he told me, "I had a very beautiful girlfriend. Mauritius girls are very beautiful. She got lots of offers from other guys, but she always turned them down. She was with me. But if you keep getting those offers, and you keep getting those offers, you can turn down the first hundred guys who come along. But she took the hundred-and-first. That was thirty years ago, and I haven't had a good relationship since."

"You sound bitter," I told him.

"Not bitter," he said, "lonely. It's hard to wake up alone every morning in the cold and go drive a cab. So you know what? I'm gonna marry a girl from India."

"From India? You know her already?"

"Yes and no. I have some Indian friends here who know her. They say she's beautiful. And she wants to come here. We've been writing letters back and forth for the past year. Everything is arranged. Next month I go to India to meet her and her family, and if everything works out come back with a wife. And she'll be faithful. She wants to live here. And who knows? Maybe we'll fall in love."

"That's wild," I said, "but suppose you two end up hating each other?"

"Then she goes back to India, and I'm out $5000 or so, the cost of getting over there and bringing her back. But it's a risk I take. I can't wake up alone any more."

"This is my corner here," I told him. He pulled over, I paid him, and wished him the best of luck in matrimony as I shut the door of his car.

Another cabby I had was a Greek man. "Melbourne is the third biggest Greek city in the world," he announced proudly to me. We chatted for a bit, and then lapsed into silence, with the sound of the radio drifting through the background.

"I have a question for you," I said. "I've been in a bunch of cabs in Melbourne, and they all have tape decks, but for some reason every single cabby I've seen listens to the radio. Why is that?"

"The radio is easy," he said.

"Yeah, but it's pretty easy to bring a box of tapes with you, and I know that if I was in a car every day for twelve hours, I'd want to control what I listen to."

"I suppose I could do that," he said, "I never really thought about bringing my own music."

"You could do more than that," I said, having a new idea, "you could bring any kind of tape you wanted. You could even learn a second language, and a third, and a fourth! You spend so much time in here..."

His apathy suddenly turned to excitement. "Yes! I could learn languages while I drive my cab! That is an excellent idea, my friend." His Greek-accented voice boomed through the cab. "I will get language tapes and learn another language! Yes! I will!"

The remainder of the ride was spent in fantasy, with the driver going on at length about the languages he could learn while doing his regular job, and the places he could then go and speak all those languages. And I got out of that cab with the certainty that he would do it, too. Often in travel, it's good just to observe, not to interfere with people's lives. But sometimes, like in this case, I'm glad I said something. I may have completely changed his life for the better. Another language never hurts.

But cabbies were not the only transit workers who fascinated me in that city. One night Rick and I were riding the trams, a very organized and well-run system, from a northern neighborhood where we'd been having coffee, to the southern part of the city where we lived. To do so we boarded the #12 for the hour-long ride home. Only two other people shared the train with us, the conductor of the tram who checked our passes, and a girl sitting nearby with whom he was talking. Overhearing their conversation, we had to get involved. It turned out that he was about the most self-motivated transportation service employee I'd ever met. For his own reasons he had done some research to discover that the Melbourne tram system is the second-oldest in the world, surpassed only by Calcutta's. Both were, after all, British colonial metropolises. And now, through his own initiative and at solely his expense, he was preparing to go there, to India, to trade places for a year with a Calcuttan tram conductor who would be riding the #12 train in his place, checking tickets and keeping the peace. The girl was a documentarian, planning to follow him there, and between Rick's experience in film, my childhood as the son of a documentary filmmaker and my enthusiasm about intracity train systems (at last count I've ridden on over 20 public transportation rail systems in cities all over the world, and their various organizations and technologies never cease to enthrall me), we had a great ride down to our neighborhood, a really interesting conversation, and the hour flew by like a satellite in orbit, unnoticeable and full of information.

I was meeting lots of people in Melbourne, but few of them fit my description of permanent friend material. I got a lot done there, in terms of productivity with writing during the days, and exploration of a truly great city at night. And I really enjoyed my time with Morry and Karen and their friends and family. But when a month had passed, I was ready to go. I said my good-byes the night before my departure, woke up after my housemates had gone to work, tidied up the house for a final time, shouldered my pack, and headed out to truck city in search of a ride to Sydney.

Sydney, 10.sept.MVMI

I have finally arrived in Sydney. Cool town, and I really wish I could stay here longer, but I have to go back to the states for a while. My friend Kurt is getting married soon, and I, as best man, should attend. That feels weird in itself, that I'm going so far from here to somewhere so familiar to me, that, for a short time, anyway, this piece of lifestyle will shift away from me. And when I first learned of it, I was filled with a mixture of feelings. For Kurt I was happy, that he had found the right mate, the end of fairytales and the beginning of lifetimes. But I felt a little bad that so much was happening in my friends' lives and that I'm not around to share in it. It made me wonder what I'm doing over here. And it also bothered me a little that I thought I was so remote, so distant from Chicago and the US and home, and that a single call could suddenly bring me so very close. All of this gave me much food for thought, about what I've been up to for the last year and before, and what it means. But ultimately I came to the realization that everything is just as it should be: my friend is getting married, I haven't seen him in a year, and he still wants me to be best man... and I worry about being out of the loop? Some things are stronger than absence. Plus, I get to travel to all these excellent places, go back for the wedding, see my family and friends, switch the clothes I've been traveling with for so long, and still have plenty of time to make the next eclipse in Mongolia. I think I'm the luckiest person I know.

And with that settled in my mind, I've really been enjoying Sydney. I've met and hung out with some cool Sydneyans already, real people, thinking people, with whom I wish I had more time to spend, and there's an excellent public library here too, plus the most raging night scene in the land. I only have four days now before I have to cut, and so I'm trying to make the most of my time.

On the way here, I got stuck in the worst town I've ever been to. It's called Surfer's Paradise, a name which seems a bit off, since I saw hardly any surfers, and if that town counts as paradise, then you can pretty much take it for granted that everything you've ever held in your mind as being important is a total sham. It's the foulest community I've had the privilege to visit, a travesty of urban planning and social psychology. A more distasteful assault on the sensibilities has never been visited upon such an otherwise cool piece of geography.

Surfer's lies essentially along a strip of perfect beach which has been sliced into pieces by a network of rivers and canals, creating a mass of small islands with sandy fringe. Which could be very cool... except that the way it has been developed into a high-rise mecca, the beaches are fully cast into shadow by 3 each afternoon, and the town's economy has been built upon the fortunes of nonagenarian relaxation-seekers, testosterone-gushing beach hunks, and long-legged girls who live under the media-supported misapprehension that a six-inch-wide strip of black latex is called a skirt. I spent three days there, because the place I was staying offered me a deal for duration and, eager for a beach and not realizing what I was paying for, I bought all three days at the start.

I passed my time there mostly sleeping on the beach until the high-rises blocked out the sun, wandering around in an extended and unsuccessful hunt for anyone who looked even remotely approachable to talk to (except that anyone else who would even remotely share my sensibilities would be far too smart to come here except by accident), and playing pinball. At night, I went to clubs to spectate; I'd long since stopped trying to fit in at places like these, these dens of ravewear and high heels. And when my three days were through, I was more than happy to pay bus fare to get out of there.

I ended up in Surfer's because, well, that's where the truckie who picked me up told me to get out.

It went something along these lines: I was outside of Melbourne, at a place called truck city. It was winter down there, and it was raining. My thumb was out. A truck went by. My thumb stayed out. Another truck went by. My thumb still stayed out. Yet another truck went by. My thumb continued to still stay out. A truck finally stopped and asked where I was going. I told him Sydney. He wasn't going there.

My thumb was out. A truck went by. My thumb stayed out. A truck stopped and asked where I was going. I told him Sydney. He wasn't going there.

My thumb was out. A truck went by. My thumb stayed out. A truck went by. My thumb still stayed out. A truck stopped and asked me where I was going. By now I've learned my lesson.

"Anywhere warm," I told him.

"Brisbane OK?" he asked. I got in.

Then we drove for thirty hours, just the two of us, alone in the cab. He told me the entire history of Australia in detail. With dates and names. Twice. He listened to his favorite tape, a musically historical gem, I'm sure, called "Bawdy Ballads", which seemed to date back to the days when the word "boobs" could offend.

He told me the history of the Australian train system in detail. With dates and names. Twice. We listened to Bawdy Ballads again. And again. He said he wished he had his Manilow tapes with him...

In fairness, he was an interesting truckie to get picked up by. He was by no means the misogynist racist trash pig truckie type about which I've heard so many hitchhiking horror stories in Australia. This guy, whose name was Glen, was a family man, who loved his wife and went on about her endlessly, in spite of his warning that if we saw a beautiful young girl hitching for rides, I might have to find myself some alternative transport. And he knew an awful lot about history and trains. Said he used to work on the railroad. But all of his knowledge was of such a technical nature that it hurt me to hear, hours of in-depth analyses of track gauges and engine types, why they put that particular dip in the highway and in what year, and always, always again, bawdy ballads.

It was a long 30 hours, made longer by his continuous appraisals of every passing truck ("dja'see the suspension on that one?" he'd snort with a shake of his head) and by my inability to sleep throughout the ride. He didn't sleep -- which bothered me more than a little -- and so, as the person he picked up in order to have conversation on the road, I couldn't sleep either. I just sort of skirted on that edge of semiwakeful zoneland, snapping to attention when he'd say something, but only long enough to respond and then start drifting anew.

So when he let me off in Surfer's Paradise, I was as eager to get out of that cab as I was grateful to him for the ride, and I wasn't going to complain. But I suppose I've ended up complaining anyway. Surfer's paradise is no kind of place to drop off an innocent traveler.

And when my three days were up and I did finally leave it, I went to the bus station (I couldn't bring myself to hitch again so soon) and asked the price of a ticket to Sydney. "$69" she told me.

"What about if I'm a student?"

"Uh, OK," she said, "$59 then." But the way she said it, it had way too much personal decision in it and not enough company policy, so I decided to try my luck again.

"What if," I asked, "I have a war wound?"

"A what?"

"A war wound. You know, from patriotism, and battle. Would that get me more of a discount?"

"Do you have a war wound?" she asked. I couldn't get anything by this razor-sharp bus station employee.

"No," I told her, "but I'd gladly go get one if it would save me a few dollars on my fare."

"Tell you what," she said, "I'll just give you another $10 off, OK?"

Just goes to show you, sometimes you just have to put your head in the lion's mouth. You just have to be willing to go out there and get wounded, and if you are, you'll be rewarded.

And I do feel rewarded. Sydney is a fantastic city, I get to go see my friends at home in a few days, and I've gotten a lot out of the last year's journey. Almost as much, probably, as I will from the next year's. We'll just have to wait and see, won't we? Life is good.

[back to the very beginning]