Tag Archives: Couch Surfing

The birds

A Rufus fantail pip-pip-pips in the garden. I watch it skitter along the central rib of a palm frond, which in an act of biomimicry, is also fantail shaped. The bird doesn’t stay long in one place. It swoops between frond and treetrunk, pausing  to unfurl its flashy tail, dancing from side to side. The bird is as fleet of foot as it is of wing. Two bounces and he’s off, taking his provocative self-advertisement elsewhere.

I’ve seen the Lewin’s honeyeater already this morning. I assume it’s the same bird I saw yesterday but it might not be. There are loads of them about. The Lewin’s has a liking, I’ve noticed, for the creamy two-inch trumpet-shaped flowers hanging in clusters from the drooping green stems of the male papaya tree. The birds have a knack for reaching their beaks right up inside the flowers, probing for nectar. The plundered flowers fall to the ground where they lie concentrated in piles beneath the Lewin’s favourite perches. The pattern they make on the soil a reflection of the Lewin’s desire.

I watch out the window of my studio as another creamy trumpet flower floats to the ground. The soil it lands upon is dark, rich and wet. It’s not like Richie and I to leave soil exposed: big permaculture no-no! But it’s something we’re trialling. What we’re doing is waiting for the rows of miniature broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, kailarn and kale that we sewed directly late last month to get a wriggle on: once their heads are a few inches above the soil we’ll lay on thick mulch, tucking them in to enjoy a slow season of growth and productivity. We’d never try it in summer. Too hot.

Looking again at the soil I imagine it smells sweetly of hummus, microbes and mycelium.

Like Richie and the papaya tree, the soil isn’t native to this place. It’s a ring-in. It landed here on the end of mine and Richie’s spades, gathered in wheelbarrows from the mountain of shit towering in the back of the ute: rotted cow manure from a dairy ten clicks down the road. Good Obi Obi cow shit. Continue reading

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my country

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On the outskirts of Charters Towers giant mango trees appear, signalling with their torrid green foliage that we’re back in habitable country. The returning sight of veggie plots and herbaceous borders quiets me. I wave goodbye to the Outback. Not long now ’til the sea.

After the parched, upstart ugliness of Mt Isa, Charters Towers is paradise: well-proportioned civic stone buildings line the streets, vying with one another for shoulder space and the largest share of generous Queensland winter sun. Tidy bakeries, hardware stores and cafes crowd the pavement, offering their assurance that, in Charters Towers, the scaffolding of a well-functioning civic community is still intact: every tile, masonry block and wrought iron bannister attests to the gravitas of the town’s rich cultural history.

The nexus of streets at the heart of town is awash with people: good, simple folk out for a stroll with dogs, or gone to fetch the morning paper for an elderly aunt or neighbour. I have a brief but compelling urge to throw myself on a pink iced finger bun; the kind you only get in really really uncouth Aussie bakeries.

Around the corner, a group of mourners spill out of a church, down the pavement, smoking cigarettes and scuffing their shoes, looking nonchalant; heedless of their grief as they keep one another company under the flimsy canopy of the bus shelter. A contingent of police stand ready, watching for signs of dissonance. In our white-man van we glide, slower than Kennedy’s black limousine, past the mourners, wondering what it is all about, who has died, and why the police feel it necessary to be present.

At this rate, there are two hours remaining until we reach the East Coast; two hours to rescind my old values and re-form my opinions of my country, myself.

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An 18-month journey is coming to an end. In a matter of days I’ll be home. The conscious process of re-configuring, re-inventing… over… for the time being, superseded by a string of expenses, reunions, outings, job-seeking, home-making. With the strictures of arrival firmly in mind I draw my awareness back to the present: to the space I am occupying in Norman’s car; to the sight of the mourners and the giant waving branches of the mango trees of Mt Isa, who have seen it all, and survived.

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ratatouille on the balcony – Couch Surfing in Townsville

The following night, on the balcony of Steve’s apartment in Townsville, Richie and I are privy to an impromptu recitation of Dorothy Mackellar’s ‘My Country’. Headmaster Kevin has put away all reserve and is up on the table amid bottle tops and discarded empties, reciting lines of Australia’s most iconic poem. After a confident first verse, Kevin loses nerve, bolstering his bravado by forcing us up out of our chairs, onto our feet, goading us to repeat after him:

I love a sunburnt country

A land of sweeping plains

Of rugged mountain ranges

Of drought and flooding rains

I love her far horizons

I love her jewelled sea

Her beauty and her terror

The wide brown land for me.

Caught midway between the novelty and splendour of this rash, drunken moment, I look about at the faces around the table, feeling faintly uneasy to be participating in such a flagrant show of patriotism. Glancing across at Richie’s animated schoolboy face I wonder, what meaning, if any, the words have to him: a visitor of 10-days to this country.

Hearing the words shouted wilfully, late, on the balcony of a suburban home feels wonderfully affirming, wonderfully Australian! I am bemused to hear the Maltese, French and English persons in our midst affirming their love of and allegiance to this ‘wide brown land’. I feel involuntarily moved by the image of my country that the poem conjures; brown foliage, dry creek beds, expansive vistas – the aspects that make it unique, different to the ‘green and shaded lanes’ and ‘ordered woods and gardens’ of the world from which my ancestors (at least some of them), came, and in some cases, fled.

Since our arrival in Darwin 10 days ago, and our journey through the Outback, Richie and I have heard a lot about what it means to be Australian. We’ve heard plenty of points of view and a fair bit of nonsense. I’m anxious about the impression my country is making on Richie and keen to make amends.

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roo balls – Richie embraces ‘Australian culture’

That night, on the balcony in Townsville, Kevin’s performance is followed by a lengthy discussion of what it means to be Australian. I’m among friends and as an absentee of six years, want to know what the hell is going on in my country; why my fellow Australians are hell bent on erecting a razor wire fence along our borders to keep the ‘good’, ‘worthy’, ‘legitimate’ citizens in, and the ‘greedy’, ‘opportunistic’ migrants out.

I hold my breath and listen to what my peers tell me.

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Luck of the Irish

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I’ll tell you something you might not know about the Australian Outback – it’s peopled by young Irish! The subtle charm of saltbush and red earth does not account for the numbers in which they arrive: behind every counter, every laminate benchtop in every kitchen, pub, petrol station, cafe and caravan park between Darwin and Mt Isa there’s a Galway or Pipe lilt-a-lurking.

Whatever the Outback lacks in emerald green it makes up for in gold: the solid gold of a hard-earned wage – the kind it’s hard to come by in Ireland. Italians and French are drawn here too, for work, but not in the same numbers as the Irish – nowhere near.

At the Mataranka Caravan Park, at the end of a long day of hitchhiking, I inquire at reception about the cost of renting a tent pitch for the night: $36! It’s terrible news but pleasing nonetheless to hear it delivered in a running-stitch of tender Leinster tones! Battling to reconcile myself with parting with $36 for a patch of earth, I inquire whether management might have a spare tent they can throw into the bargain. To which she kindly responds, ‘No’.

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That night, lying under the stars, part-way-under a shared sleeping bag, with the sound of mob politics in the background, I ponder what it might be like, as a youth from an Irish village, to find yourself, suddenly,  in the Australian Outback. I feel baffled by what might draw someone this far across the earth to take up residence in a landscape only marginally less alien than the moon, to a culture as quixotic, contradictory and idiosyncratic as a pink bus called ‘Priscilla’. Surely it’s not just the money?

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On the second night of our hitch-hike across the Outback we’re saved by the kindness of the Irish. Tess, Mike and Lee are on a road trip that will take them from Sydney to Cairns. They’ve drawn up at the Barkly Homestead in their dusty blue station wagon and are happy enough to have their tents up, cans of beer in their hands and a good part of the driving behind them.

It’s cold. As they hug their coats closer about their shoulders their attention is drawn to the two weirdos (us!) who have wandered in off the road, under cover of darkness, and are spreading a layer of cardboard on the ground in order to shield themselves from the rising damp that would otherwise cost them a night of sleep.

‘We ha a tarpaulin if ya waaant it’, one of them offers, shouting over from the comfort of his canvas camping chair. He looks appalled to be witnessing our performance of voluntary impoverishment.

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Couch Surfing in Ubud

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scanning for Couch Surf hosts… is anyone out there?

Five weeks prior to our arrival in Bali we contacted Di and Nigel through Couch Surfing (CS). At the time, Indonesia felt like a far-off dream, and the prospect of sailing home to Australia, a ludicrous endeavour.

We had our backs bent to the task of digging rice paddies on a burgeoning eco-tourism project on Koh Phangan. The barrage of bass-line from late night doof-parties, for which the island is famous, and the bloody proclivities of the local mosquitos was taking its toll. For the first time in a long time we were at a loss: couldn’t say where we were going, when, or for how long.

After hanging up our gardening gloves for the day, we took up our laptops and pegged our hopes on a series of couch surf requests: a life-line of introductions that stretched all the way from Southern Thailand to KL and Singapore, and from peninsular Malaysia all the way across the sea to Jakarta, Kuta and Ubud.

Di and Nigel received our CS SOS with felicitous welcome. They stuck with us while our plans changed and accepted us even after the date of our stay shifted from the 17th to the 27th of April – a mere three days before they were due to depart for their holiday in England.

Fast-forward five weeks to the afternoon of the 27th of April and there we were, trussed up like a couple of Christmas turkeys on bean bags on Di and Nigel’s front porch, gazing into limpid mugs of coffee and mooning over proferred plates of door-stop sandwiches – organic white ciabbata!

During those first crucial hours of host-surfer bonding it became apparent that the four of us shared a cultural lineage: Nigel and Richie grew up within 129 miles of one another in Birmingham and Thetford respectively, whereas Di and I are both Queensland lasses, our home towns separated by a meagre 1,600km: which in the spacial-geographical terms of our country, meant we were practically neighbours.

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Nigel shares his passion for micro-brewed beer with his fellow countryman

Once we’d established the parameters of our youthful follies, we fell to that favourite passtime of refugees and migrants: laughing over the quaint traditions of our countryfolk; recalling landmark festivals, fads, celebrity-downfalls; and sharing humorous anecdotes about the inexplicable customs and idiom of our ‘host’ country – Indonesia: it was Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island meets Down Under all over. Continue reading

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TRAVEL, EAT, SLEEP

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Travel, eat, sleep. Boil mine and Richie’s lives down to their bare bones and there’s little more to them at the moment than these three things: travel, eat, sleep – each element supplied in fluctuating amounts of excess and scarcity.

Among the three, Travel is the undisputed heavyweight champion: the other two, eating and sleeping, are its dependants: we eat as much as necessary to sustain ourselves during our travels, and sleep as much (or in this case, as little) as travel permits. More often than not, we do two of the three activities simultaneously: eating while we travel, sleeping while we travel, and in some cases, dreaming of eating and travel while we sleep.

toying with the idea of sleep

toying with the idea of sleep

Out of the last eleven nights: we’ve travelled from Koh Phangan to Yogyakarta; spent two nights aboard ferries and two aboard trains; had seven changes of bed; entered our 18th and 19th countries in 15 months; and covered a total distance of approximately 3, 500km. No wonder we feel tired!

The panoramas of rice fields and jungle glimpsed from the window of the train from Jakarta to Joygyakarta twist our necks and put our noses out of joint, making us wisftful for experiences we won’t be having, not this time. Volcanoes, crater lakes, rice terraces and national parks beckon from the pages of the Indonesia Lonely Planet, threatening to turn us aside from the task at hand, which is, finding a flightless passage from Indonesia to Australia.

“On our way back to England,” / “next time” / “if we do this jounrey in reverse” I find myself fantasising twice, sometimes three times a day, “we’ll come back here” / “we’ll climb Mt Bromo” / “We’ll visit Ijen” / “We’ll go via Papua New Guinea to the Philippines”. Richie shakes his head, smiling at my optimism. He pretends he knows better but I know for a fact that he too is planning the return journey from Australia to England: first New Zealand, then the Americas from south to north, arriving in Ireland from Canada, from Canada to Wales, then finally across to England. We’re as bad as each other.

Richie, you see, has his heart set on Uluru. Meditating on the red rock would be a peerless way to signal our arrival: “Hello Australia, we are here, please give us the best.” Richie could stage a rave and I’d give Alice a dance performance the likes of which it had never seen, not since Felicia and her feathered friends pulled into Alice in a shiny candy-pink bus. Continue reading

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One Year of Faces: Part 1

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On the 23rd of this month Richie and I celebrated one year on the road! 365 remarkable days! If there’s one thing that has characterised the experience for us, it’s the people. As a tribute to the places we’ve been and the friends we’ve made, I offer a gallery of faces: each one beautiful and unforgettable in its own way.

These are people with whom we’ve couch surfed, Wwoofed, played, partied, wept, worked and dreamt. Thank you, each and every one of you, for the inspiration you’ve offered us; the chance to mingle our life journeys with yours.

Thank you… شكرا… спасибо… σας ευχαριστώ… gràcies… 谢谢… tak… merci… მადლობა გადაგიხადოთ… תודה… grazie… ຂໍຂອບໃຈທ່ານ… با تشکر از شما… mulțumesc… ¡gracias… teşekkür ederim… diolch i chi… Ake Issrebeh Moulana… tanemmirt…

To turn these images into a slideshow please click on any one of them!

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Season of the harvest

We arrived in Plovdiv’s Yug Bus Station feeling grateful for having escaped the intensity of Istanbul and the foot-swelling all-night bus journey.

Bulgaria – our seventh country in as many months!

As we sat in the bus station chewing greasy breakfast pastry we speculated about the many permutations of fried bread we’ve eaten during our 7 months on the road, and wondered what was ahead in the way of fat and flour.

Thankfully, in Bulgaria, there’s no reason to live off grease, cheese and coffee. Gripped by a late-season glut of tomatoes, capsicums, eggplants, grapes, peaches, plums, apples and pears, Bulgaria’s towns and villages were awash with colourful market stalls. To impoverished tastebuds acclimatised to the bland horrors of English supermarket food there was no doubt that this was some of the best food we’d ever eaten. Who knew tomatoes could be this good?

In a region of central Bulgaria known variously as the Valley of the Thracian Kings and the Valley of Roses we were delighted to find that not one household had neglected to fill their backyard with a variety of fruit trees and heirloom vegetables. Walking the streets of Kran was a moveable feast, hands darting between railings and over fences to snatch mouthfuls of red currants, black grapes and marble-sized cherry plums.

“Incredible edible” exclaimed Richie, marvelling at the absence of ‘ornamentals’. Not a single municipal council-planted acer, plane tree or horse chestnut was in sight. Instead, sour cherries, walnuts, plums and sweet chestnuts lined the village streets, flaunting their exceptional ornamental value while at the same time, dropping fruits and nuts into the palms of passersby. Not wanting to be outdone, even the pavements yielded a crop; enough fat succulent purslane to furnish many a late-summer salad. Continue reading

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