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Somewhere over Europe
October 26th, 2010

I’m writing this on a RyanAir flight between Berlin and London. I’ve flown budget airlines before, but this really takes it to a new low. The interior of the plane is plastered in advertising, the PA speakers are used to advertise the delicious beverages you can purchase to quench your thirst (they actually said “quench your thirst”) and right now the flight attendants are trying to hock lottery tickets. There’s also no assigned seating, which is the natural order of things in a movie theatre, but which makes a plane feel more like a bus.

I saw Chris off at Tegel Airport this morning, on his way back to Australia. The fellowship is broken. “I can’t believe the trip is ending like this,” I said. “This is lame.”

“Well, come back to Australia and we’ll start a new trip,” he suggested. “With bikes.”

I’m certainly tempted to, but at the same time I’m committed to London. Whatever I decide to do is irrelevant to this trip and to this blog, however. What I’m trying to do now, in this final post, is reflect on the trip that changed so very, very much from how we envisioned it. You have probably gathered, if you’ve been paying attention, that it did not go to plan.

We are perhaps the only backpackers I have ever heard of who don’t enjoy it. I find it difficult to say whether or not I would have enjoyed it more had I not been with Chris, who is rarely satisfied with anything and who certainly wasn’t satisfied with most of this trip. I don’t mean that in a bitter way; I genuinely don’t know if it would have changed things. Perhaps I would have been happier without him; perhaps I would have been exactly the same. I suspect it’s the latter, but I won’t know until I try travelling alone or with someone else (and, for it to be a fair experiment, try it in Asia).

It’s difficult to reflect on our experience, because it’s such a tangled knot of feelings and reactions that I’ll be sorting through for many years to come, and which is tied into the larger knot of what I want to do with my life. Part of it was that I dislike Asia and Asian culture; part of it was that I dislike any young and drunken party scene, which is what so much of South-East Asia is; part of it was that I like my comfort, and any trip involving squat toilets and twelve hour bus rides needs to have some damn good redeeming features; part of it was that I, like Chris, loathe relinquishing my freedom.

I’ve mentioned before that travelling the world seems to be the very epitome of freedom; but ironically, it is not. In a foreign country you do not understand what is happening most of the time. You are a guest of the government, dependent on a visa and the whims of the local authorities. There’s a decent chance you’re in a dictatorial police state. You do not speak the language, which means you are often reliant on the kindness of strangers. You must devote effort to eating three meals a day and finding a bed to sleep in every night. Your entire life is contained within your backpack, which you will often be lugging around for many kilometres in sweltering heat and rubbish-strewn streets with no idea of where you’re going while people grab your arm and try to sell you things. Somewhere amongst these myriad problems you must try to enjoy yourself.

Compare this to home, where I could drive my car wherever I pleased, where I had a kitchen in which I could cook my own meals, where I spoke the language and always understood what was going on around me. I’m not saying I expected those things – I’m not stupid – but it does puzzle me when people use the word “freedom” to describe travel. Independent travel involves many things, some good and some bad, but freedom is not one of them.

Neither, of course, is organised travel – we went on a guided tour in Ha Long Bay and loathed every second of it. Tourists in general give up a lot of their freedom. Backpackers like to think they’re much more adventurous than package tourists, yet they all read the same Lonely Planet and thus stay at all the same hostels and eat at all the same restaurants.

I’m not trying to disparage group tours either, though. If you’re happy being told what to do and when to do it, that’s great. Good for you. Something I cannot abide – and something which seems to be disappointingly common amongst travel writers, and indeed all people who travel and discuss their experiences in any way – is a certain amount of contempt and arrogance directed at all other travellers. You’re not doing it right, they say. You’re not experiencing the culture, they say. You simply have to do this or must see this. (Closely tied to this attitude is the unparallelled level of reverence accorded to The Locals – as though subsistence farmers below the poverty line are somehow inherently better people than us.) The level of contempt backpackers direct towards package tourists is incredible, and has to be seen to be believed. I don’t know whether package tourists have their own attitudes. I doubt it, since they don’t make a lifestyle of it the way so many backpackers do. I do know that many expats are even more arrogant; just take a look at all the comments during our feud with the Vietnamese crowd, and all the subtle criticisms therein. “Most people couldn’t handle Vietnam,” they sneer, as though they have accomplished something special. (This attitude is discussed here, by a more well-adjusted expat.)

These are observations I made a long time ago and opinions I’ve held for a while now, but it’s only now occurring to me as I write this that perhaps the reason I dislike many other travellers is that they’re a subculture, a clique, just like goths and emos and hipsters and Australian bogans and racist nationalists. They’re people who are desperately clinging to a group identity rather than forging their own.

And I suppose, to some extent, I was one of those people – let’s call them the Lonely Planet crowd. For the last, say, three years I’ve been thinking of nothing but travel. And because I’m a voracious reader, that means I’ve been reading a lot of things on travel – books, Lonely Planet articles, blogs and forum posts.

The LP crowd raves about travel. They talk about how wonderful it is to see the world, to experience other cultures, to “live life untethered.” Without ever having travelled myself, I began to agree with them. In fact, I began to do as they did, and look down at people who simply worked at jobs and lived in their own countries – I even looked down my nose at people who merely travelled to “safe” destinations like Europe, North America and Australia.

Here’s the thing I wonder about travel: what do you get out of it? There are truly some amazing things to be seen, and I’m certainly not trying to discourage people from doing it. But when you go back home – whether it be to Perth, or Liverpool, or Moose Jaw – how have you changed? Because to be quite honest, going to Cambodia and seeing a bunch of dirt-poor orphans sitting around because they have nothing better to do and no employment prospects does nothing but make me think, Phew! Glad I was born in the first world! Can’t wait to get back there!

I’m not criticising travel in and of itself. I’m criticising the concept that travel is essential, or that it somehow makes you a better person, or that travellers are far more intelligent and cultured people than those who never venture beyond their own borders. This is an attitude that is, as far as I can see, completely unchallenged – never spoken aloud, yet acknowledged by anybody who posts on the Thorn Tree Forum or starts a travel blog. It is arrogant, pompous and detestable, and is probably held by a good share of people who never even realise it. It is an attitude I used to hold myself, before I actually went travelling and learned some sharp lessons.

My advice to anybody who considers travelling overseas is to think long and hard about why you want to do it. You want to go to Thailand and get pissed? Awesome, have a great time. You want to go see all the Bhuddist temples and ancient ruins and stunning landscapes? Also awesome, you’ll take some great photos and get some good memories.

But sooner or later the trip has to end, and you have to go back to the real world. Don’t assume that a backpacking trip will change your life or grant you an epiphany. Maybe it will, but don’t bank on it.

Having said all that, I’m not done with travelling. I certainly don’t feel like working again yet. But I doubt I will ever again cram myself on a bus for twelve hours or hop from town to town along the coastline of South-East Asia. In fact, like Chris, I highly doubt I will ever travel again without my own means of transport.

The other way I’ll “travel” – comments about expats aside – is by living in a place. This is by far the best way to experience somewhere. You never stop being a tourist until you live and work in the place you’re visiting, and that’s why I’m forcing myself on to London rather than going home.

But the thing about travel, as I said earlier, is that it’s not the be-all and end-all of life. If I were confined to Australia for the rest of my years, I’d be very disappointed, but it certainly wouldn’t ruin me. If you can’t live a full and happy life in your own country, you can’t live a full and happy life anywhere (unless, y’know, you live in Burundi or something). This probably sounds stupid to almost everyone reading it, but bear in mind that Chris and I had been planning this trip for three years and expected to be on it for two. This was our life. This was everything, and we had nothing more than vague ideas about what we’d do afterwards. The events of the last few months have turned that around and left both of us at fairly directionless, but I guess sometimes you have to learn the hard way.

This has been a very educational six months.

Berlin, Germany
October 21st, 2010

Today is my 22nd birthday, a fairly unremarkable age, and although I’m not generally one to get excited about birthdays, this iteration is particularly bleak. I’m not going to pretend that I’m not depressed about Chris’ departure, and not daunted by the prospect of moving to a new city completely alone.

Everything that we’d been dreaming about – having our own apartment, working on our respective creative ventures, riding motorcycles to Glastonbury, going skiing in Switzerland, and just generally going back to living our lives, something we mistakenly thought backpacking was – all that has been swept away by the pen of a government bureaucrat in Dusseldorf. I’ve said it before: fuck Worldbridge.

I was torn between following him back, or pushing on to London alone. Every bone in my body was screaming at me that I should go back, that it’s sheer lunacy to try to start a new life from scratch in a city fifteen thousand kilometres away from everyone I know and love without a friend to support me. But going back isn’t really an option. In fact, although I was and am tempted, I knew I’d never really do it. If I don’t try London I’ll regret it.

It scares the shit out of me, to be honest. I found going to Korea much easier, though perhaps that was because I didn’t have anything calling me back to Australia. Now Chris is there and Mike’s there and Kristie’s there. Since Chris is going to Melbourne to live with our friend Jamie, and Kristie will also be heading to Melbourne next year, that’s undoubtedly where I’ll head if London doesn’t work out.

The thing about all this is that it brings up something I’ve been avoiding looking in the eye for a long time, which is that I have no idea what I want to do with my life, and that I have a strong suspicion that the “just go out there and have wild adventures” solution offered up by so many inspirational quotes is not quite as fulfilling as you might think. I strongly suspect, in fact, that the meaning of life lies in cultivating your relationships with others. Every meaningful relationship I have is currently in Australia. Which, as I have also learned this year, is a much finer nation than I previously gave it credit for.

I’m going to write more about travel reflections later on, probably for the final post. This one here is about me and Chris and what we’re going to do with our topsy-turvy lives in this big confusing world. What I was getting at is that I can feel my life moving on its fulcrum; the early twenties are a critical age. The counterpoint to RELATIONSHIPS is CAREER/ACCOMPLISHMENT. I’m going to London to seek a job in the writing industry but there are so many different things I want to do. I could end up working for magazines, or publishing houses, or newspapers, or – more likely than any of those – be forced to settle for something that I don’t enjoy doing at all, like copywriting or sales and marketing. (Jesus Christ, but I swear I could type in any combination of letters and get 1000 results for “sales and marketing.”) I was reviewing my resume today and realised how much of my professional life I’ve wasted away. I spent far too long working in a supermarket. I may as well have subtracted a certain number of hours from my life in exchange for money for all the good it did me and all the enjoyment and experience I got out of it. I would have liked to work in a bookstore, but that time has passed. If I do that now it will also be a waste, because I sure as hell don’t want to build a career in retail. Five years from now, will I be looking back on my London jobs with the same regret?

I don’t want to fuck this up. I have a terrible vision of myself living in a studio apartment throughout a drizzly England winter with a job that I find as deadening and pointless as I did my internship at the City of South Perth. And even if I give up on it and go back to Australia those problems aren’t solved. I’m frightened of not having any marketable skills. I’m frightened of being someone who’s talented but too lazy or unconnected to ever accomplish anything of worth. I’m frightened of just aimlessly drifting through my twenties, and my life.

That’s what this trip was, like Korea and university were before it: a way of postponing life. There may be some third way I’m not thinking of, some way of finding myself a career and a life that I find worthwhile and fulfilling without having to slog through eight years of existential crises, but if I could think of how to do that I’d be doing it already.

Maybe I overthink things.

Summary: Upper-middle class 22-year old white kid with European and Australian citizenship, a university degree, $14,000 in savings and the freedom to do whatever he wants bemoans his miserable plight.

October 20th, 2010
Berlin, Germany

Monday, 18th October 2010, at the WorldBridge office, Berlin.

“I’m here for WorldBridge.”

“Oh, WorldBridge closes at 4pm, sorry.”

“It’s 3.45pm.”

The stupid bitch shrugged her shoulders.

Take two: Tuesday, 19th October 2010. Once again at the WorldBridge office, Berlin.

“Hey, I’m here for WorldBridge. Do you speak English?”

“Yes, what can I do for you?”

“I applied for a UK Tier 5 Youth Mobility Visa almost a month ago and I’ve just read online that it’s currently enroute to the listed address. My listed address is in Australia and I specifically asked the man I handed my application to to keep it here at this office so I could pick it up. You know… so it doesn’t get sent back to Australia… when I’m here… in Berlin.”

“OK, what is your name sir?”

“It’s Christopher Cody.”

He fucked about behind his desk for a minute or two.

“Well it appears we’ve got your passport right here, Mr. Cody.”

“What? How long has it been here?”

“Since the seventh of October.”

“That’s more than a week ago.”

“Did no one email you?”

I refrained from tearing his head off. The bastard looked down in an attempt to avoid my empty stare. He then said:

“I have to ask you now to open the parcel here to determine whether it all went OK.”

I tore it open not thinking much of anything at all and went for the passport, flipping through it to see if the visa had been set in place; the clerk went for the accompanying documents. I’d been through a lot to get this far: the endless hours online, the verbal and written battles, the broken links on the WorldBridge website concealing vital information and now the cherry on top of the big seathing mass of fuck-up-let-Chris-down cake, the notification, or lack thereof, of my passport ariving back in Berlin. I had been dealt a bad hand time and time again but I’d stuck it out. And in the whole month we waited, not once did I really consider the possible outcome after submitting the application that I’d be refused.

I was refused.

After nearly six months of living and traveling together, it’s over. Mitch will continue on to London, where he would be and has always been more likely to be happy, and I will come home, but as of the 26th of October, the Gentlemen Of The Road will cease to be.

It’s been at least three years since Mitch and I started planning this adventure. Only last year did we both decided to finally get the fuck on with it. I worked up north in the Kimberley for six months earning a rather attractive sum, while he shipped himself off to Korea for God knows why. We worked hard and planned even harder for nearly a year straight. I left thinking we’d travel the whole world in a single hit, spanning maybe two or so years. From Australia to Asia to Europe to Africa to South America and then up through the States to Canada. Three weeks into the trip our idea of travel and the “backpacker life” had changed dramatically. The biggest lesson I learned was right there in the beggining: don’t stick to something just because you said you’d do it. If it isn’t fun, stop doing it. I mean, we had like forty-something thousand dollars between us.

It has always been apparent that Mitch has enjoyed the better part of the trip somewhat more than I. And despite his constant banter and complaining, you’d be right to assume so. He’s incredibly adaptable and contrary to all of those back home who still treat him like the twelve year old he once was, he’s done more than most of you have with your lives and he’s done it quite well if you ask me thank you very much. I on the other hand have struggled. Struggled in many ways I’d never have dreamed of when we were back home. Many times throughout the trip, we came dangerously close to renaming the blog Gentleman Of The Road. Even in the early stages in Cambodia. Then again in China and Mongolia and even here in Berlin. For Mitch this was an adventure, a better look at the world. For me, it was an expensive escape route. But instead of leading to the wonderful ending I’d hoped it would, it made me realise you can’t just fuck off to the other side of the world and expect everything to fix itself. To this day, I belive I went on this trip for all the wrong reasons, and I have paid the price for it.

Although, I do not regret it.

Thank you Mitch for carrying me as far as you did.

(You’re still a pig though.)

October 19th, 2010
Berlin, Germany

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October 16th, 2010
Berlin, Germany

Autumn is in full swing in Europe, and as somebody who comes from a topsy-turvy land where the leaves stay on but the bark falls off during winter, I find this tremendously pleasing. Some subconscious part of me – probably the part developed during a childhood of American cartoons – knows that Australia is a bizarre and alien frontier, and this is what the real world looks like.

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It’s even cold enough some nights to wear gloves. Mercy! I bet November is the bleakest month, though, when all the leaves have disappeared and you just have bare skeletal trees without the compensation of Christmas cheer and a chance for snow. Oh, snow. I hope it snows in London this year.

Apparently it was recently the twenty-year anniversary of German reunification, which seemed to pass without much fanfare here, I guess because trendsetting Berlin did it in 1989. I finally got around to seeing some of the Berlin Wall, a spot called the East Side Gallery. I assumed there’d be quite a few bits of the wall kept up around town for posterity’s sake, but tearing it down was, after all, the entire point.

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While riding the subway on the way back I wondered how they dealt with that, since Berlin still had a pretty extensive underground metro back in the 60’s. Apparently West Berlin retained most of the lines that weren’t clearly separate, but the trains were not permitted to stop at the stations on the eastern side, though they did need to slow down to pass through. This meant western passengers peering out the windows were treated to an eerie glimpse of dimly lit “ghost stations” that were barricaded and patrolled by East German guards. History does not mention whether two separated lovers briefly met eyes as the train passed and were suddenly struck with the personal level of cruelty inevitable in the separation of an entire nation, their pensive eyes representing the anguish experienced by an entire generation, so of course we must assume that they did.

Aside from these spontaneous outbursts of tourism I’ve been happily slotting back regular life, even though we’re technically still on the trip, albeit in a holding pattern. I like going to sleep in the same bed every night, and eating home-cooked meals, and not living out of a backpack, and owning more than four shirts and one pair of jeans, and not having diarrhea every second day. It’s great.

We’ve also been visiting motorcycle dealerships, so Chris can lead on earnest young sales reps. (He would happily buy a bike, if not for the uncertainty regarding driving in Germany on an Australian license, and importing it to the UK.) He currently has his heart set on a Yamaha something-or-other, and after some deliberation about having a test ride be worth the expensive repercussions if he dropped it, he took one out for a spin in the carpark behind a dealership. There came a moment when he stalled the bike and the back tyre slipped out, and our hearts all leapt into our throats, but he recovered it. A good thing, too, because I wasn’t filming at the time and I would have hated to miss the YouTube opportunities of “Man drops 6,000 Euro bike during test ride.”

Berlin - Yamaha XT660Z Tenere Test Ride (5)

Life is pretty good here at the moment. We don’t have jobs, but we do have lots of money, and I’m a lazy man, and Berlin is fairly cheap. I’m racking up rejection letters from literary magazines (at least Aurealis spelt my name right this time) and spending time in the finest of Germany’s high-class drinking establishments, by which I mean hipster bars where a beer costs three euros (staggeringly cheap compared to an Australian bar; incidentally, Perth has climbed the rankings to become the fifth most expensive city in the entire fucking world).

Living with our new flatmates is great, because it dilutes the five-month-straight ordeal of being with your best friend 24/7. Although this apartment is definitely too small for four people; whenever we’re all in the kitchen together it’s like a game of Twister. Actually it’s too small in general. The fridge is the size of a minibar and lacks a freezer, so we have to go shopping every day, and the bin might be suitable for a secretary’s desk in a small office, but is most certainly not suitable for dealing with the deluge of rubbish four people produce. We generally have a pile of full rubbish bags in the corner. It’s like living in Korea all over again!

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Here is our flatmate Essi, taking photos of Chris’ tattoos for her blog Fashion Overdose, which gets about 1000 hits a day. Gentlemen of the Road sometimes manages a few hundred, during peaks of Vietnamese outrage. Also she gets sponsored for it and has an internship at a magazine. Also she has accomplished this despite being younger than me. I AM NOT JEALOUS.

She also has a delightfully hilarious Finnish accent, where her tone randomly wanders up and down her sentences to the amusement of all. She pronounces “no” with about four different vowels in it: “Nooaaueee!” It’s the most similar real-life accent we’ve come across to our fake Italian accents: “I cannot-a read-a the passaporta! There is-a too-much-a spaghetti sauce on it! (Peers at passport.) A… Mario? Luigi? It must-a be either one or t’e other-a!”

Ruth, on the other hand, has a meat-and-potatoes Canadian accent, despite insisting that she’s not Canadian. I don’t know why anyone would want to disassociate themselves with Canada. Who doesn’t like Canada? Such insolence earned her a room-barricading yesterday.

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Chris and I, of course, have Australian accents, which are world-recognised as the epitome of dignity and grace.

Chris’ visa hasn’t come through yet, by the way, though we’re now past the ten-working-day estimate we were given. We don’t know when he’s getting it, therefore we don’t know when we’re going to London. Stop asking. Also stop asking me what kind of job I am planning to get in London (mayor).

October 3rd, 2010
Berlin, Germany

Chris’ appointment with Worldbridge went more smoothly than expected. The guy who did the interviews was a lot more helpful than the woman at the front desk, and reassured Chris that most applications he receieves are from people without six-month residency or properly signed bank letters. He doesn’t know if they actually get accepted or not, but it seems more reassuring than the alternative.

Of course, to get there, he had to get past the woman at the front desk.

“We need your application form.”
“I filled that out online.”
“You need to print that off as well.”
“What? I submitted it online.”
“Yes, but we need a hardcopy too.”
“…Why? What is the point in doing it online if I have to give you a hard copy as well?”
“That’s just how it is.”
“Well, can I use your printer?”
“No.”

Fuck Worldbridge. Fortunately there was a Ritz-Carlton across the street that promptly let him use their printer free of charge even though he wasn’t a guest. Now that’s how private enterprise should be!

I’ve mentioned this before, but if you ever find yourself in government, please do not privatise services that are natural monopolies. I cannot stress that enough.

Now we’re just waiting “an average of 10 business days” for it to come through. We’re mostly just huddling in the apartment, since early October in Berlin is as cold as a Perth winter, but occasionally we’ll rouse ourselves to go do something touristy. We went to the history museum a few days ago, which was interesting. Several people in historical portraits looked uncannily like contemporary actors Sean Penn and Robert De Niro.

It was also amusing to find examples of prejudice randomly scattered throughout the informational plaques. “Jews were not permitted to own property… Jews were not full citizens… as knights sailed for the Crusades, many Jews were slaughtered in celebration.”

“Man, what did the Jews do to piss everybody off?” Chris wondered.

“I think they killed Jesus,” I said. But, hey, that guy had it coming.

The World War II section was obviously the money melon. Germany – unlike SOME Axis countries, not naming any names – doesn’t shy away from admitting that it was the bad guy in World War II. It’s disturbing to watch Hitler gradually rise to power, but at the same time, Year 12 History wasn’t that long ago and I found myself skimming over a lot of it.

More interesting to me is the aftermath – not the Cold War stuff, but the way a society comes to terms with what it just did. According to polls taken during the postwar trials, most Germans wanted to just forget about it and move on, which I suppose is understandable but also just a tad cowardly. Similar to, say, not prosecuting your presidential predecessor for establishing a worldwide network of kidnapping and torture.

We also went to the natural history museum, which had dinosaur skeletons and such.

We’re getting pretty bored here.

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Well, Chris is. It takes a few weeks for me to get cabin fever, as long as I have books and Internet access.

He left his underwear hanging on the balcony the other night and both pairs fell off. One was irretrievably lost to the sidewalk, the other landed on the sattelite dish belonging to our downstairs neighbour.

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He managed to rescue this pair using a coathanger tied to his laptop charger, to the great amusement of myself, Essi, and the assorted crowd sitting outside the bar across the street.

Essi is one of our new roommates, and the only Finnish one – the other, Ruth, is actually Irish-Canadian. Since their arrival I’m once again bunking in a tiny room with Chris. Why, it’s just like being on the road again! Except even Vietnam had better bathrooms than this place (refer to previous post for detailed bitching).

Now that we’re living in our own apartment we’re cooking our own meals, by which I mean Chris is cooking our meals. (I am also forbidden from food shopping, after I returned one day with a hunk of frozen vegetables and some nearly-expired sausages that tasted like I imagine a dead body to taste like). Every night at dinner we watch an episode of the Simpsons for old time’s sake. Last night, particularly nostalgic, I cued up the Channel 10 News theme on Youtube directly beforehand.

Not that I’m particularly homesick or anything. I mean, it would be nice to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, but I don’t really miss Perth. I visited the opinion section of the West Australian yesterday and was reminded of what a provincial backwater Perth is.

This is the only daily in a state of two million people. Here is a summary of the ten most recent opinion articles:

1. Teaching
2. WHATEVER WILL WE DO ABOUT THIS MINORITY GOVERNMENT?!
3. Australia’s Next Top Model
4. A meandering review of a paperback thriller, the writer referencing Sartre and randomly discussing his cats
5. Mining
6. Mining
7. Right-wing Alston cartoons
8. AFL
9. Canada should host the Commonwealth Games on account of not being a shithole
10. A collection of Youtube music videos

God strike me dead if I am making those up. I presume all the talented journalists flee to the eastern states. Or the UK.

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