The man sitting next to me on the bus from the airport was thirsty and struggling with the heat. I took a sip from my bottle of water and then told him he could have the rest. I was going through my coin bag of foreign currency, digging out ringgit, and he made me a little origami shirt from a Maldivian banknote that depicted a fishing scene. In the spirit of cultural exchange, I gave him an Iraqi note which he refused at first, reasoning that 1000 dinar must be worth too much, but I explained that it was equivalent to about a dollar and anyway I didn’t anticipate many money-changers taking an interest in it.
He seemed kind and jolly, but he had a sad smile. I thought he said that his wife had died, but I wasn’t sure, and I felt too awkward to press for more details. I do this thing too often where I act like I understand everything that’s been said when actually I don’t.
I’d spent the night in the 24-hour restaurant in Colombo airport, trying to doze through muzak renditions of Danny Boy, the staff nodding off on the sofas next to me. The subsequent flight had passed by in a confused blur. I think I broke with tradition and slept a little.
A million encounters with friendly men had taught me to proceed with caution, no matter how nice and agenda-free they seemed. I engaged with the man from the Maldives, I enjoyed talking to him, but I did not give him my contact details. He said if I ever go to the Maldives I should get in touch. I accepted his e-mail address. I don’t know if I can still find it.
My flight got in around midnight. The immigration officer asked me to name the people I’d visited in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, and then I collected my rucksack and walked out into the rain. Contrary to the claims of the guidebook I’d browsed in Brisbane, there was no bus, because it was Easter or something. I’d arrived in New Zealand on a visa run, because otherwise I would wind up overstaying my welcome in Australia. And I also kind of needed to just move on somewhere, because Australia Phase One had been defined by all this bullshit going on in my head that I didn’t really need, lots of feeling mopey and anti-social and out of place.
I shared a taxi into the centre of town with two Norwegians; one of them was studying in Sydney and the other was visiting him, and they were going to rent a van and drive around New Zealand and do things like camping and hiking. They asked about my travels, and “Iraq!” echoed through the cab, making me feel kind of like a phony but on the other hand I was only performing the requested recital. Maybe I should just save Iraq as a trump card for when I find myself in the company of oneupmanship travellers: the ones whose chat is all “Where have you been to? Oh, while you were there did you do this interesting thing and that interesting thing? Did you go to this really obscure part that I’ve been to? No?” and then they tell you all about their superior experiences because yours are never good enough.
The Norwegians seemed pretty nice and I almost wanted to ask if I could hitch a ride in their van, but I didn’t want to impose. Anyway I seemed to be on a roll here, being all interesting and independent and stuff, and part of me was kind of amazed at how quickly I sounded like I had my shit together, after spending the past few weeks with the words What The Hell Am I Doing ricocheting around my head. We pulled up outside my accommodation for the next few nights, which was a radical social centre covered in murals, and I said goodbye to the boys and got out all happy and confident, to be greeted by tea and cake by activists who’d stayed up waiting for me. Maybe the encounter with the Norwegians slightly influenced the idea I had the whole time I was in Wellington that it was kind of like Norway; somehow my arrival and the rain that barely stopped and the hills and the harbour and the wooden houses reminded me of Bergen, and hey, it was cold enough.
The white German boy with the dreads had been sitting in the row behind me on the flight from Wellington to Melbourne. As we started to disembark he leaned across and asked me about my Užupio Respublika badge. He’d been in New Zealand for the best part of a year and now he had arrived in Australia without a place to stay for the night. I regretted that I was unable to help him, but there was something about him I didn’t entirely take to. All the same, he suggested we go for a drink and I figured why the hell not – I had time to kill and we were both travellers.
This is the updated version of the many times I’ve thought “hey, you look like a punk, we must have stuff in common! Oh, wait, we totally don’t.”
“Yeah, I was travelling with a friend of mine,” he said as we waited for the airport bus, “but I’m not gay, so living in a camper van with another guy for three months was too much.”
I didn’t know how to respond to this.
“These guys I worked with invited me to Vanuatu,” he said as the bus moved off. “They’re black guys, but they’re nice.”
I thought about whether he might have said this to me if I hadn’t been white. I thought about the white Canadian neighbour about ten years ago who told me she was moving in with some black South Africans and then offered, “They’re awfully nice, you know, Nine, some of them. The blacks, I mean.” I wondered if there was something about my presentation that made people feel the need to explain things like this to me. I wondered if the German boy had considered that I might not be straight.
Instead of going for a drink with him, I packed him off on a bus to St Kilda, confident he’d find a suitable backpackers’ hostel there. I took a train to my friends’ place out in Northcote and sat on the steps outside their place, reading zines and The Day The Raids Came for a couple of hours until Alex came home and plied me with wine.