New one!

Hey look, I made a new blog post and it’s over here.

Still figuring out the subscribe stuff, but will be on that presently.

Hey! You! Look over there!

In an effort to be more professional about things, I put together a little website. It’s made up of a series of very responsive  boxes that change colour when you roll your cursor over them. It also contains more of the articles I’ve had published in magazines and journals and through street press.

Over the next little while, I’m going to be moving some of my favourite blog posts from here to over there – dusting them off and tidying them up. And I might even make an attempt at some sort of regular blog.

Go have a look. It even has a teal sidebar.

(My immense thanks goes to Bruce, who designed it, and Mum, who made me a logo. Creative families rock.)

Black Swan Rising

(First Published in The Big Issue, 24 May – 6 June 2013.)

Perth, as a city, is blooming. I hate to use cliqued seasonal metaphors, particularly at a time of year when most things are going to seed, but I can’t really think of a more appropriate term for it. Things are happening here on a wider, more comprehensive scale than I’ve ever seen, at a rate that seems sudden. It’s like I’ve detected slight movement in Perth out of the corner of my eye, and I’ve turned to find some crazy, sparkling parade sprung from the dust.

Not long again, it was habit and hobby for locals to regularly announce things to each other like, “Nothing ever happens here,” or, “Perth is boring, what a crap place,” or, “Stuff it. I’m moving to Melbourne…”

I went to high school in Fremantle. About 30 minutes on the train from the centre of Perth, Freo is technically an outer suburb, but it exists in its own safe little bubble and feels like a lot more like a small town than a part of the larger metropolitan area. When I was in high school, months could pass between trips to the city – a pointless and often harrowing exercise with very little reward, and one which would usually only take place under extenuating circumstances. Northbridge, where the few venues and bars were, was dangerous and dark, while the CBD was soulless and transitory, deserted on the weekends. So, instead of going anywhere, we just experimented with drugs and roamed the nighttime streets of Palmyra or Beaconsfield or Hamilton Hill, while all the bright young things around us finished year 12 and, disillusioned with their hometown, moved to Melbourne. And so, at the end of my gap year, I went ahead and did the same.

A little over seven years later – after four years in Melbourne, a bit of time back in Fremantle, and the other two or so travelling and living overseas – I have returned, most likely for a while. This ‘while’ has grown longer every time I ventured into Perth to see a Fringe show, concert or other arts event. Our prodigal bright young things are returning, full of knowledge and inspiration from cities more culturally developed, and Perth has become a place of arts, music, film festivals, small bars, impressive venues and decent places to eat.

This year was the second year that Perth had held a full Fringe festival, which ran for a month, starting mid-January. There were over 200 shows, with a good portion of those selling out. The Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF) last February had a program any city would be proud of.  And our music scene is spilling out nationally and internationally successful musicians. As for bars: in an interview on RTR FM, WA Minister for Sport and Recreation Terry Waldron said: “When I took over there were only 12 [small bars] in operation. Now there are 65.”

There are probably a few causes of this mutant-speed cultural growth spurt, not the least of which would be the money. We’re freaking rolling in it. Thanks to the mining boom, Western Australia is now one of the richest places on earth, let alone the richest state in Australia, with an economic output hovering around $236 billion. Mining accounts for about 35% of that. This, then, means a few things. Mining, oil and gas companies wanting to improve their public profiles from “insatiable rapers of the earth” to “good guys buying people in the capital nice things” have been shoving their wallets towards the arts to forage reputations as cultural supporters. So the PIAF Festival Gardens has become the Chevron Festival Gardens and the Rio Tinto logo pops up on most Black Swan Theatre Company productions.

More than this, though, the mining industry is bringing us an audience. There has been an influx of mining company employees and their families who have suddenly found themselves working and living in this strange, incredibly isolated city at the bottom of the earth (or on the other side of the country, if they’re coming from over east). They make good money and most of them are used to festival-a-minute sort of cities, with strong cultural scenes and plenty to do. They have provided the demand. Perth, cashed up and growing like a teenager, has supplied.

Earlier this year I was wandering around the CBD with a few friends, looking for a place to drink. We had just attended the spectacular PIAF opening, an incredible display of fireworks and industrial French drummers, and had found ourselves in the new Brookfield Place. Staring in at the bars and restaurants – far too swanky for us to drink in, dressed as we were – my friend turned and asked, “Are we in Perth?”

Is it possible to be proud of a city? The concept sounds a little silly and condescending in the face of something so big and complex. But to be from a place that has gone from being a dusty, isolated outpost, to a city with a cultural arsenal ranging from $15 fringe shows to $82 quartet performances – it’s pretty exciting, anyway.

I’m proud to be a part of that. And I’m happy to be home.

Fire, Tango and More Submissive Female Leads: Bilbobasso Comes to Freo

Bilbobasso

First Published by Lip

There is a scene in the headline act of the Fremantle Street Arts Festival, a show by French company Bilbobasso, where the leading lady dances for the leading man, trying to convince him to come back to her. She dances with what look like the bones of two enormous metal fans, a series of lit cylinders at the tips, which send out fine showers of embers as she moves. He – a gangster in a purple suit – sits at a front corner of the stage. He is illuminated by a small fire at his feet, and he keeps his back to her throughout. Behind him, she is a bird absorbed in a mating dance, aware only of her body and her mate; the lights are down and we can see nothing but her silhouette moving among elaborate patterns of embers, and his bored expression. When she is done, he strides past her towards his new woman, his shoulder hitting hers and swinging her open like a door.

The description for the Bilbobasso show in the program suggests that the attraction between this ‘mysterious young woman’ and her ‘ruthless gangster’ is doomed for failure, and then wonders whether the dance might save her. It cannot. Boy meets Girl; Boy discards Girl for another; Girl tries to win back Boy; Boy rejects Girl a number of times while spending lots of time with other Girl; Girl is driven to Boy’s older, softer associate; Girl and older associate endure a fraught courting process; Girl tries to win Boy back a couple more times; Boy, Girl, other Girl and older associate all dance together in a finale; and then older associate either kills or destroys Girl, though that last bit isn’t really clear.

It’s probably not completely clear, and the above synopsis potentially not altogether accurate, because the story is told entirely with Argentinian tango dancing and rampant pyrotechnics. The narrative is really only there to provide the frailest of bones for the fleshiest of visuals – in every scene there is elaborate dancing, and in every scene many things are set on fire. They have this brown dust that, when lit and thrown, explodes in a great puff of flame, and they use this liberally. As well as throwing it, they spread it through the sand on the stage, light it, and then kick it around, until the very ground on which they are dancing is alight. They tango dance with lit poi draped over their arm and have conversations while their hats roar with flames just above their faces. During the courting scene between the leading lady and the older associate, the two of them pick up coffee pourers filled with some sort of flammable liquid, light the spouts, and then swing each other  around in circles pouring the liquid out around them in fine ribbons of blue flame. It’s pretty spectacular. Narrative is clearly not the point.

Still, it was the narrative that bothered me. Usually when gender within narrative bothers me, it’s because the men are perpetually holding the leading, activator role, while the women are prizes or mothers of children or token side-kicks, if they are present at all. This especially seems to happen in spectacle-based performance works or street theatre shows, which use simple, generic storylines as racks from which to hang their tricks. Who hasn’t seen the one where the male street performer picks a pretty girl from the audience to woo with his skills and charms?

What bothered me about Bilbobasso’s show was that although Girl was the main character – the story was clearly hers – Boy still had all the power, and Girl still held the submissive role. It bothered me that the women in the story were items to be consumed and then discarded. It bothered me that Boy was clearly an arsehole, yet Girl still pursued him like a beaten dog, hungry for his attention.

Plus, the men weren’t sexy. Both women, of course, were young and stunning and they danced accordingly. Their legs, hairless and smooth as carved wood, licked in and out of dresses split to the crotch. Their movements were sensual, controlled and they glided over the stage boneless and muscled as tongues; the men, meanwhile, though technically probably good dancers, were not sensual. The purple-suited gangster was greasy-headed and square, sharp in his movements, while his associate was in his 40s or 50s, white haired and balding. He had a fatherly loveliness to him, but he was not sexy, not like the women. The chemistry was absent. The women were beacons of sexually-charged beauty begging at the feet of unattractive men. It only served to intensify the power imbalances already in place and objectify the women further.

If you can make dust explode in the air, you can write a good story to go with it: practitioners of street theatre really need to start progressing with their narratives as quickly as they’re progressing with their presentation of spectacle. A show wherein the narrative is secondary can still pull itself out of easy generics without sacrificing simplicity. Expose the gangster as weak. Have the other woman reject the gangster. Get the older associate to become besotted with the leading lady and then have her discard him. Make them human; create power play, conflict the audience’s opinion of the characters. If the women are sexy, the men should be too – it’s only fair. Fuck with some gender roles. Powerful men and submissive women – we’ve seen that already. We’ve been seeing it for centuries. You can light shit on fire all you like, but if you’re going to have a story, at least make it interesting.

By Zoe Barron

 

FIRE IN THE HOLE!

Does it matter if you get deported if you’re going home anyway? So, when everyone’s scattered in all directions away from the cop cars and the fire trucks, and you’ve ended up riding the backstreets at 3am with this guy you’ve never actually met before because that’s who you happened to follow when chaos happened, and the backstreets you’re riding belong to some suburban section of LA  you don’t know at all – to the extent that if the guy were to suddenly vanish there’s no way in hell you’d actually be able to find your way back to your friends or the place you’re staying – should deportation be the first practical concern to spring into your head? Or is the look he gives you when you say, “Fuck, if I get caught, I might get deported,” entirely warranted?

Just a few days prior, you’re driving up from Yuma; getting used to driving again and to everyone around you speaking English. The road along the border and all those signs pointing back to Mexico, you are thinking about home and trying not to turn back. Then those weird roadblocks, with the United States Border Patrol Protecting the Homeland Since 1924 Terrorist Threat Level signs. Your car in a line-up of cars, culminating in some deadpan border guard with a buzzcut and a black uniform peering through the window, seeing blonde and white and female, waving you through.


Next, the hills. Huge hills and green after desert. Then the civilisation of Santiago, billboards and exits to Wallmart, and then the sudden expanse of a military base, dark falling, the wide empty landscape loaded with authority. No stopping, authorised vehicles only. LA appears on the horizon like a pillow of lights and you tense up and pay attention.

You stay where you stayed before, with that weird, sprawling bicycle collective, in their warehouse in the dodgy suburb of Inglewood. They’re building their tall bikes like before and you’re eating free from the dumpster dive fridge and they’re teaching you how to weld. On an afternoon, you play bike polo with them in the park, talk about going on a ride in a few days, sit on the concrete drinking and blending in. They’re talking about the South by Southwest Festival in a month too, and they want you to come. They call it South-by and you hear it as South Pie. They want you to come but you know you’ll be home by then, even if you could – and should – go if you wanted to.

And how about that time you go to church? When you go with Dario because you’re curious; because, you tell him, we don’t have God in Australia really. Not like here. And you get there and everyone is on their feet with their hands floating up and down like they don’t weigh anything. You’re the only white person in that whole dim, badly carpeted community centre room, buried so deep in outskirts suburbia it’s almost industrial, but nobody notices and the man at the front has a microphone and his preaching is almost in song. Then the band strikes up and the man with the microphone is singing, and everyone else is too. God is just an excuse for celebration. Church is just an excuse to get excited about being alive. And even if you don’t really believe in the excuse, you believe in the celebration, and, especially right now, you believe in what is being celebrated.

So you’re kind of glad that Dario’s not there the night of the ride – considering what the mob does later. At the start you’re looking for him, but he’s got confused and hasn’t followed the group. You’re all on bikes, maybe ten of you leaving the warehouse, maybe five on tall-bikes – those strange contraptions constructed from frames welded together and up, like stilts on wheels. You watch their riders grabbing hold of street signs and traffic poles at the lights so they don’t have to come down from their great height.

There is a guy in the carpark – the whole carpark filled up with bikes like that – who has an entire roll of Buy Me I’m Cheap stickers, and he’s wandering around sticking them on everything. He’s sticking them on the bikes and on the people standing in circles around the bikes talking. He sticks them on the tall-bike riders as they return to the ground to greet the people in the carpark, who are still strangers to you. He sticks one on you, too.

And then you’re riding, all of you. Riding out of the carpark all together into the LA streets, and you are only one bike-person combination in a great stream of chains and spokes and tires and frames and the legs and bodies that power them, one in the long blur of red lights flashing ahead, and white lights flashing behind. It is dark and late already, the streets are lit by street lamps, your friends on tall bikes are floating above the mass of it, and there’s that little bottle of liquor keeping you warm for now.

You haven’t been riding long, though it would be hard to tell caught up as you are in the novelty of it, when the head of the great snake of bikes turns down a hidden sort of gravel road, turns a few corners, and splashes into another group of bikes and riders at a cluster of construction site demountables behind some empty lots. There is a DJ playing, his decks and sound system mounted onto a cargo bike so that later he and his music can also join this strange parade. Before him and around him people dance or stand and talk. Their bikes are propped up in piles. The construction site is not a construction site anymore. You immediately bum a cigarette and tell stories with people you have only just met. It is chaos and it is intoxicating. There are people everywhere.

And now one of the guys you’re staying with, one of the figures so high up who has come down to earth from his tall-bike, is wheeling a wheelbarrow full of combustibles over to the skips near the fence. And you’re climbing up and into one of the skips, tottering over the top of its contents arms out like a scarecrow, throwing down more combustibles, and the fire is growing taller than the people, taller than the tall bikes, bigger than the wheelbarrow. “Fire in the hole!” they yell whenever they throw aerosol cans in. “Fire in the hole!” and everyone jumps back.

At some stage in the evening (either before the construction site, or after you all pack up and leave that fire to its own devices before it starts to draw attention), everyone, the whole wheeled mob of you, stop at a 7Eleven for more booze. Another carpark fills with the likes of all of you. A guy from the warehouse sells grilled cheese sandwiches for $3.50 each from the portable griller he has been towing around behind his bike. At some point you lose your wallet and someone finds it and you and gives it back. You buy a hot chocolate with the money in it. At some point you pee behind a building in an empty lot.

But it’s the next bit, the bit in the church that looks like an old grey office building, that the real part of the evening begins. You are almost the first one there, and the building has been mostly gutted. There is a great big digger in the middle of the place like a brontosaurus and people are already climbing up over its tread and into its cab, up its great sloping neck. What’s left of the floors from the upper stories sag down from where they have been severed, almost to the ground, almost low enough to climb up. But not quite so you climb up the walls instead – the demolition wounds scored into them for a ladder. At the top you find boxes of bibles and theology texts, you find laminated sheets summarising bible stories for children, you find cassette tapes with sermons on them. And from up there, watching the bikes and all the people stream in, you see them discover the cross, you see them wheel it out into the centre, and you know this won’t last long.

Friendlies

All of the sudden, everyone is white and speaking English. The flight attendant performs the safety demonstration like a presenter on Playschool, the pilot announces the flight details like a sports announcer, and I’m not sure if it’s just because I understand what they’re saying that they seem strange, but I don’t think so.

Then Mexico is gone and we’re flying over Pheonix – a flat landscape of lights all in a row. I learn that Phoenix Airport is America’s friendliest airport. You can volunteer to make it friendlier. The people who do wear purple uniforms and overblown lapel flowers. They stand at mildly complicated corners and guide people around them, smiling fiercely.

“That’s seriously one of the most fucked up things I’ve ever heard,” Nina writes back when I tell her about them in an email.

I can have idle conversations with strangers, and I do. I can eavesdrop. In the customs line at the Phoenix Airport, I listen to a group of people around my age discussing how they’re going to get into town, what they’re going to do when they get there, and I’m fascinated. I try hard not to look like I’m listening.

In my bag are Nina’s Mexican things. She wanted to send them back to Australia for her sister to sell – Frida Kahlo bags, intricately painted ceramic skulls, beaded jewellery, embroidered cheesecloth dresses – and considering Mexico doesn’t have a postal system, I volunteered to ferry them home for her. So this is where my favourite idle conversation with a stranger comes from: at security, with the man behind the x-ray machine.

“Nice skulls,” he says, watching my bag slide back out of the machine.

“Thanks,” I say.

I have two hours in the Phoenix airport before my flight to Yuma and, though it is a friendly place, it is definitely not an exciting one. I wander mildly, then I go to my gate, where the flight leaving before my flight is being evacuated back into the airport.

As they are evacuated, the passengers sit heavily back down in the boarding lounge. They’re supposed to be on their way to Palm Springs by now.

“I dunno, maybe she’s just like that. I mean, I don’t want to judge people or anything,” says a lady on my row of seats. She has a thick southern accent. “But. Well, she was havin’ trouble. I’ll just say that.”

“Nope,” replies another lady. “She was drunk.”

The people in airport uniforms are looking very serious. There is an announcement over the gate loudspeakers apologising for any inconvenience the delay may have caused, but assuring us that safety is their primary concern and all staff must be breath-tested before passengers can be permitted to re-board the plane. This should not take long.

A little while later, a female flight attendant, crying quietly, is escorted from the plane by the pilots, past everyone in the boarding lounge, which has gone very quiet.

Colette and Marcel pick me up from the Yuma airport and take me back to the RV. They are happy to see me. I have to tell them that I’m really sorry but I can’t stay for the New Orleans Gumbo Dinner at the Park tomorrow night with all the Park People, that I’d really love to, but I have a friend in LA who’s only going to be there for a couple of days, and I haven’t seen him in years, and he lives in Melbourne so I probably won’t get another chance to see him any time soon, and he’s just got married so we have a lot to catch up on. But I can stay for a little bit tomorrow. I won’t leave until the afternoon. We can have breakfast. Alright, Colette says, but she’s doesn’t hide her disappointment.

In the morning, the trunk of my car is broken. The button in the centre console that is supposed to open it, won’t open it. Neither will the key. I pull all the stuff out of it and climb in from the back seat, start trying to feel around in the latch, just lie there in the dark pushing at the roof. Soon, there are three or four Park Men standing around it with furrowed brows, and I am watching with Colette from behind the screen door of the RV.

They part, and it is fixed. I hug and kiss everyone goodbye, we all make some vague promises, and then I get in. The car’s been sitting there for three months without so much as turn of the key but the engine goes without hesitation. I back out, drive the speed limit out of the park, and out and up and North.

Cutting Balls from Dogs

When I get back to La Manzinilla, the weather has turned. It’s raining daily, like it never does in the Dry. The bus drops me off at the turn-off and I hitch a lift into town in the back of a ute; by the time I get back to Jeanne and Brian and Glen’s place, I am soaked through. Warm rain, like a water heater running out of hot. Nobody’s home, so I towel off and wait under cover, and when they do come home, everyone’s very happy to see everyone else.

They hadn’t been there when I arrived, they explain, because they were volunteering at a pop-up dog (and cat) clinic in town. Twice a year the clinic happens, when volunteer vets are brought in to neuter or spay every dog and cat, factory style, owners can be convinced to bring in, and there are a lot of dogs and cats in and around La Manzinilla. I imagine a little vets office, with volunteering gringos sitting with a handful of subdued animals, maybe running flea combs through the animals’ fur until they wake up. When I go to volunteer the next day, however, I find that it’s a much bigger operation than that.

On the first day I volunteer, they chop the genitals out of almost seventy animals. The entire town hall has been commandeered for the operation, a space about the size of a school gym. To the right, there are a line of those carry cages you take pets to the vet in – all sizes, an enforced queue of dogs and cats waiting to go in. When cage and animal reach the front of the line, they are stuck with a needle of general anaesthetic, then carefully caught and spread out on the operating table when they fall fully under. The are laid on their back, four legs bound to each corner of the table, belly and genitals to the air.

The vets do it all for free. The clinic is five days, starting from around 8 in the morning until often more than 12 hours later. There are three of them, and the work is assembly line. They work in a separate room at the end of the hall, but the two spaces are connected by windows, so I can stand and watch if I want as a vet slices into the sac around a dog’s testicle, then presses at the sides until out pop the two white balls, one by one. I feel sick but it’s very, very hard to stop watching.

The next bit is where we come in. The left side of the hall is the recovery area and, still in the grips of the anaesthetic, the dogs are carried in by their legs, tongues lolling, and laid down on towels and mats on the floor. The cats are placed on tables closer to the door. I was right about the flea combs, though with the sheer magnitude of fleas present, they are rendered largely ineffective. And then there’s the mange, the ticks burrowed into ears, the clumps of missing fur, the ribs pushing out at the sides. This is the bit when you realise why this clinic happens. And there aren’t the packs of dogs roaming the streets like there used to be, either, I’m told.

So it’s our job to ease the animals back to consciousness, to catch whatever fleas we can before they get there, to check their ears and between their toes for ticks, and to feed them the bright pink liquid worming medicine when they start to come to. The dogs take half-an-hour or so to rouse, the cats take three. The cats and the smaller dogs, at risk of losing body heat, get those little rice packs you warm up in the microwave. The cats have crosses of tape over their eyes – cartoon for dead – because the anaesthetic makes them especially sensitive to light.

Sometimes the job is cradling a kitten in a towel, or returning a litter of puppies to their comatose mother. Sometimes it’s mopping up extra shit and blood that happens to slip out. Sometimes it’s convincing a confused and frightened dog in a cage to stop, please stop, bloody barking. By the end of the day, it feels very much as though you yourself are irrevocably covered in fleas.

One Mexican farmer drives around to all the farms in his area, picks up his neighbours’ dogs, and brings them all in at once – ten or thirteen of them, all tied up in the back of his ute. A couple of extraordinarily cute kittens, freshly de-sexed, play in a cage beneath a ‘Free to Good Home’ sign. In the back of one ute, a freshly neutered male tries his best to mount a freshly spayed female, as yet unaware of the change that has been inflicted. It rains, it stops raining, it rains again. I fall in love with cute animal after cute animal and, back at the house, finally book my flight to Arizona.

How to Leave a Country

Shirley collects Australians. On the Saturday night I meet her, she’s waiting for her current collection of them to turn up – it’s their last night in Guanajuato and when Chac closes and Shirley knocks off, everyone’s going to go out. I should come. But I’m feeling a bit sick, in the early stages of a cold,  and I’m weary of meeting new people and the routine of going out, so I sneak back to the hostel and pass out and never end up meeting them before they go. Except for Nina. I meet her a few days later.

Shirley is half-Menonite and half-Mexican, meaning that her mother was part of the strange, German and Dutch religious sect that fled to Mexico from Canada after the authorities suggested they should probably start putting their kids into proper schools. And her dad is the Mexican boy Shirley’s mum was not allowed to fall in love with. Shirley is also a lesbian, an alcoholic, a chain-smoker, a bit of a gypsy, and a collector of Australians. She has been working full time as the cook at Chac for 200 pesos a week ($17 or so) since Jerardo opened the place about two months ago.

Jerardo doesn’t earn much more. He is feminine, soft spoken and long-haired. He speaks next to no English so when Shirley doesn’t want to translate, communication is limited to gestures, facial expressions and my smattering of Spanish. When he gets upset, he gets as drunk as Shirley and becomes sinister and nasty, but these times are rare and most of the time he is all sleepy cool smiles and welcome.

I meet Nina a few days after meeting Shirley, when she comes back from wherever the other Australians have gone for good. She is kind of aloof when I first meet her, and on first impression she strikes me as the sort of younger-than-me that I find hard to take seriously, though the difference is only three years. Plus, meeting new people has become hard. But then I start talking to her more, and listen to her talk to Shirley. She has a sharp, energetic humour I understand. And she has my accent, is from where I’m from. Soon, she is quick and funny. She hangs out with Shirley in the kitchen and they play – with words, with plans, with stories. They have been teaching each other the slang of their respective languages and along with collecting Australians, Shirley has been collecting the Australian phrases Nina has been feeding her.

“Get fucked the lot ‘a yaz,” Nina tutors.

“Get fucked the lot of YOU,” Shirley commands.

“Bloody bogan!” Shirley accuses in her thick Mexican accent.

“Is he a booze hound, like me?” Shirley asks about a friend of mine who might be visiting the city. “Because if he’s not a booze hound, he can’t come!”

The three of us go for a hike up to a white cross up on one of the hills surrounding the city. It’s a significant hike and I’m the only one who brought water. From the top, the whole city spreads down the length of the valley like a stream of milk and fruitloops. On the way down, when we’re not so atrociously out of breath, we start talking more and Nina and Shirley tell me about their adventure up North. They and Shirley’s other Australians hitchhiked up there and went into the desert to eat peyote. Peyote and the desert, I’ve already learned, are important parts of Shirley’s personality. They tell me about how dirty they were, but how good it felt. They tell me about eating dinner with Shirley’s family in Chihuahua and about how they were caught in a gun fight outside a service station. I enjoy listening to Nina tell stories. They’re peppered with obscure observations and dry humour that makes you cough out laughter before you’ve even figure out what’s funny.


Nina has an apartment on Dead Dogs Lane and a little white kitten called Mecos de la Luna (Sperm of the Moon), or Meco for short. She says its because when she got him he had a little white body and a long white tale and he looked just like a sperm. She got him from a man on the street. The man  was standing in a doorway holding tiny Meco when Nina walked by. “Para mi?” Nina asked, mostly joking. The man handed her the kitten. “Sweet,” she said and took him home.

Nina sleeps in. During the day, after she finally gets up, we often sit around Chac and pretend to learn Spanish. Sometimes, in the morning, which is often the afternoon, we go down to Chac before Shirley starts work and make scrambled eggs with tortillas and guacamole and Shirley’s incredibly hot chilli sauce. Nina doesn’t like spicy stuff very much; Shirley and I have reached the point where things don’t taste like anything unless they have some sort of chilli on them. Most of Shirley’s food makes me sweat. It’s wonderful.

Somewhere amongst all this, I figure out what I had already figured out ages ago. I call Tim over a ratty Skype line and tell him I’m going to come home.
“Really?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
“When?” he asks. The connection is bad and I’m not sure he can see me when I shrug in reply.

The decision makes me much happier, though impatient. I go to Quaretero, where Calvin (the guy I road-tripped down with) has followed his girlfriend to live and work for a year, and the trip is like the bottom of a yoyo throw. I’ll go back to Guanajuato after Quaretero, then back to Guadalajara to get my dental stuff done, then back to La Manzanilla, then back to Yuma for my car, then back up through the States, then to Canada, and then, finally, home.

The hostel, Casa San Gallito, is 150 pesos a night (roughly $12) and it’s one of the nicest I’ve ever stayed in. They even have biodegradable toilet paper, so you can throw it in the toilet, rather than in a bin next to it like with almost every other toilet in Mexico. So simple, but such luxury. I have my first hot shower in over a week. I sleep on a real mattress under a blanket instead of  fully clothed on a deflating sleeping mat, under a poncho I’ve borrowed from Shirley. I do my laundry and soon I have socks that don’t smell like death. The hostel is chicken-themed and the keys are attached to little yellow rubber chickens. All of the signs around the place begin with, “San Gallito says,” and then there’s the picture of a saint with a chicken’s head. “San Gallito says… Please put your name on your personal food,” or “San Gallito says… Sloth is a terrible sin! Please wash your dishes.”

As for Quaretero, it’s a lovely, calm, and thoroughly monied city, colonial with clean and quiet streets. Calvin tells me it’s where all the drug cartel bosses stash their wives and families so there’s a sort of unspoken truce arrangement going on. As a result, it’s one of the safest cities in Mexico and international companies have taken to stashing their staff there, too. Calvin and his girlfriend, for example, work teaching English for Colgate.

When I get back to Guanajuato, there’s a clown festival on. It’s like the circus has taken over the city; strangely dressed performers commandeer almost every square, entertaining people with unicycles and juggling equipment. Nina doesn’t like it at all. She hides out in Chac and shakes her head vigorously when I ask her if she wants to come out with me to see some shows. So I watch them alone, trying to interpret what it is they’re saying in Spanish to make everyone else in the crowd laugh so much.

I’m getting ready to leave now. I think about Tim so often and with such intensity that his absence has almost become a sort of presence. Every day I wake up next to him, and then I wake up again and I’m on the other side of the world.

Fremantle takes on the proportions of the perfect city. It is a utopia in my head and I start describing it to people as such: sitting on the beach at 2am in summer in bathers and not being cold; standing chest-deep in the ocean at night and the water being the temperature of a bath you’ve fallen asleep in, and so clear you can see your feet; the electric blue sky, the dry heat. Home.

Ordinary Life

It’s somewhere around the beginning of January, when I’m still in La Manzanilla, that I take stock of my family and their respective whereabouts. Dad’s in Dubai or Cairo or one of those on a business trip; my brother’s on an oil rig somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, motoring slowly to port in Africa; my mother’s teaching English in some little village somewhere in East Timor; and I’m in Mexico.

“I’m sorry,” Mum tells me sometimes, “but you’re not going to have an ordinary life. We weren’t made that way. There will be amazing highs, and there will be the lows that come with them. But there won’t be many straight lines. ”

I get an email from her the day I arrive in Guanajuato. There are question marks where the apostrophes should be, and the paragraphs are all strange or mixed up, but it’s an email and news and it comes after more than a week of nothing. The village where she’s staying has limited electricity, let alone internet. I’m pretty sure she has to travel to another town somewhere to check her emails and send ones out.

It also sounds like she’s been busy. She talks about working in the clinic, helping the staff with their English: “Every morning, I sit with one of the Timorese staff members while they dispense drugs to the patients,” she writes. “They describe each patient?s situation in English and I correct them. In between patients, we talk about other things, but there isn?t much time for that. When I arrive, the verandah is overflowing with many, many people waiting to see the doctor, most of them children. I?ve seen an awful lot of paracetamol dispensed and a great deal of malnutrition…”

She describes the private lessons she has with some students and the classes she teaches with others. She is far, far away, in some tiny little village twelve or so hours of rudimentary road from Dili, and she’s feeling little overwhelmed by it all – the strangeness of the place. “Sometimes I feel exhilarated and want to stay forever, but often I?m nearly overwhelmed with doubt and anxiety, wondering what the hell I?m doing here. It?s not the conditions, which could be considered quite primitive by our standards, but the awkwardness that comes with being so different and not knowing the language.”

After a few days, I write back. Guanajuato is an astounding city and I tell her that; how taken I am by the place. The street plan is like a bowl of spaghetti. None of the hotels or hostels have maps and after catching the bus into town, it takes a lot of directions and a lot of getting lost before I find the place where I’m staying.

I write: Wandering the city is a regular succession of getting lost and found again. Turn a corner, and you’re in a square. Turn another and there is a magnificent church. Another and there’s a fountain, some steps, the university, a mariachi band, someone selling churros or fruit or tacos from a stand.

The city centre is built along the length of the bottom of a valley, while the houses climb up the sides. They are all built to strict structural regulation – the houses – which stipulate they be rectangular and made of concrete. There are regulations for what colours they can be painted, as well, only this is Mexico, so the regulation colours are things like sky blue, apple green, magenta, crimson and canary yellow. The city is a dense, messy patchwork of vivid colour.

The receptionist at the hostel where I’m staying can’t speak English. I use my halting Spanish instead. ‘Casa del Angel’ says a sign at the entrance, House of the Angel, and there are statues of angels and pictures of angels and angel ornaments all the way up the narrow staircase and along most surfaces. My room has four bunk beds and six single beds in it, but all of them are neatly made and empty. I choose the one closest to the window, furthest from the door.

The place was built on a silver mine and when the mine shafts were exhausted they discovered that they could be used as a way to solve their traffic problem. So the cars are all underground, in a complicated maze of mineshafts turned roadways, leaving the streets for pedestrians.

That’s  not entirely true. There are still some cars above ground, but they are awkward on the cobblestones and hardly fit through the tiny streets.

In the common room, an older British man sits with expensive headphones over his ears and a laptop on his lap. He smiles briefly at me as I sit down with my own computer. Another guy, closer to my age, is sitting in one of the other sofas, also staring into his laptop. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else booked in. I will go on the internet for a bit, I tell myself, and then I will maybe go out and have dinner somewhere. Maybe  I’ll get some food and cook it here. I’ll go exploring. It’s a Friday night. There should be something happening. I’ll go explore and that should keep me busy until it’s time for bed, I think to myself, and I start my computer up and sign into my email account, check my Facebook for word from home.

On Saturday night, I wander into some cafe/bar called Chac and make friends with Shirley the cook and Jerardo the owner, and soon I’m staying with them in their little cold-water apartment somewhere up an alleyway behind Mercado Hildago. Some of the walls of the alleyways are barely a shoulder-width apart in this city.

This is when I write Mum the email, soon after moving my stuff out of the hostel and into the apartment.

Sometimes, Mum, I wonder exactly the same thing. What the hell am I doing here?

The apartment is furnished only with four empty bed frames and a fridge. There is no stove, no chairs, no mattresses, no tables.

What is so imperative about the other side of the world that I feel the need to be here all the time?

And then there’s the roof. From the roof, you can see the whole city; the curl of the valley, the colours of houses, the bleached blue of the semi-desert sky. Shirley likes it best up there at night. She likes the lights, but not the buildings.

So often now I wake up on a sofa or a floor or a mattress in someone else’s house and wonder, What’s wrong with just being home? What’s wrong with simple routine and people I know so well we have nothing left to talk about? What’s wrong with a job and a single place to live? What’s wrong with continuity?

A sort of a temporary routine begins to settle over me. By day I wander around the city, study Spanish, check my email. By night, I hang out at Chac and get slowly and pointlessly drunk with what little money I have left, smoking Shirley’s cigarettes, speaking in broken Spanish with whoever is there to speak it to.

This compulsion turned ideal or ideal turned compulsion and back into ideal, empty now of its novelty.

I love the city. I bide time. I miss Tim.

I’m tired, Mum. I’m surrounded by such incredible things. But I’m so tired.

How to Leave a City

This could be any other city. Great clots of traffic muddy up the roadways. There is smog and people, lights and buildings, roundabouts and buses. Everyone is busy going somewhere, weaving their way though everyone else going somewhere else.

At the bus station, taxi drivers at the rank push their cabs forward manually when the line moves, leaning their weight into their open doors, one hand in the steering wheel, engine off until a passenger climbs in. Local buses drip in and I ask the drivers one by one if they’re going to where I am. It’s dark, I’m on my own. I use what Spanish I’ve learnt.

“Voy a La Normal,” and “Va a La Normal?”

Dad spent three years of his adolescence in this city. I’ve arrived the day after his birthday.

About two thirds of the way to the centre, an American in a cowboy hat gets on and sits next to me. I’m the only other white person on the bus. He is old, pasty and hairless and his hat sits on his head like an umbrella on a cream cake. Although I have headphones in and am looking out the window, conversation is immediate and unprompted. He tells me where he’s going and how he’s going to get there. He lists a few bus numbers and street names. He tells me he works for a mining company and he travels a lot, but he lives here in Guadalajara. I ask him how long he’s been in Mexico for. “Too long,” he says. “Too fuckin’ long. Not good fer a man to spend too much time in Mexico. Man can go crazy down here,” he says. And then he suddenly starts reeling off drug war stats: how many people have died and how, the way its been covered up, the way the media won’t report on it anymore in case they get killed, how the different cartels operate. I want to tell him that the media reports on the violence plenty, and how I feel safer in most places in Mexico than I did when I was travelling through his United States, but I’ve already decided that he’s probably not worth arguing with. He smells milky and slightly sour and he holds his face too close to mine as he speaks.

I find Hermano at an all-you-can-eat buffet called Sirloin with the two crudest, most obnoxious girls of the La Manzanilla group. I’m not hungry, but I spend too much money on a buffet plate and the food is shiny and fake, the texture of glue. The girls wolf-whistle at the waiters, write down their phone numbers on napkins and leave them in prominent positions on their empty plates, threaten repeatedly to puke they’re so full. On the bus back to Hermano’s, they blast their little stereo and talk over it and one another, about sex and boys and bodily functions.

Hermano the dentist has spent too long in Guadalajara. He has been six years here, six years in this same little apartment; fours years studying things he hated studying and two years practicing them. In La Manzinilla, he kept trying to extend his holiday, finding reasons to stay a few extra days, an extra night even. The change in him – the Hermano I knew in La Manzinilla and the Hermano I’m getting to know in the city – is startling. He is restless and strange. His movements are quicker but less focused, more fraught. In the mornings he gets up for work, irons his shirt and trousers on his mattress and is gone from the house. When he comes home he sits smokes and watches stupid TV with his feet propped up on a stool.

The girls leave the next day, though it takes them most of the day to do it. They pack and repack, pace the small apartment, fill it with their noise. When they do finally go, I wait tensely for them to come back – they forgot something or aren’t going for some reason – but they don’t and eventually I relax.

I stay four days. Travel is the effort of filling days outside of a routine, when you have no function or position, so your only purpose is detached exploration and maybe learning. Hermano’s apartment is all noise – I wake up to the water man shouting “Ag-gua! Ag-gua!” over his incessantly ringing bell, to the bread boys honking their horns, to the knife-sharpening man’s whistles. Neighbours play music or blast TVs through the thin walls, dogs bark, people call to each other over balconies and the traffic rumbles and grunts overtop of everything else. I wake without much reason to get up but I do it anyway, study some Spanish, take the bus into the centre and walk up and down streets, read my book. The city is smog and density and sound. The city is everything too close to everything else.

“I don’t like music,” Hermano tells me one evening, when I ask him what I should put on. “People think I am crazy, or broken or however they think. They think it’s something wrong, not to like music.”
“You don’t like music?” I say. “How can you not like music?”
“See! You are the same. Everyone thinks it is such a weird thing. I don’t know why not. I just don’t like it.”
“You’re crazy,” I tell him.
“When there is music on, and I have listened to that music before or something like that, so the music carries the place I heard it before. I don’t like it that it is feeling like something else. Music. It is… I don’t know how to explain. It is not real feelings.”
“Really?”
“Yes. Really.”
“Alright then. I won’t put anything on.”
“No. You can play something. You just don’t ask me questions.”
“Is there any music you like more than other music maybe? Like, do you like quieter music, or electonic stuff, or rock?”
“I don’t like any music.”
“Right.”

On his day off, Hermano takes me exploring. We wander through the centre for a while, to the markets and a few other places, then he takes me to Parque Mirador at the end of one of the bus lines. Parque Mirador is a park with a lookout over a huge canyon, a fine green sliver of river way down the bottom of it, tracing this sudden, uneven interruption in the landscape. The city has been built right up against it but over the other side, there’s nothing but empty plains. Density butted up against pure distance, like a dry shoreline. Hermano tells me he’s never been here before. “This is how you get out of the city,” I tell him. “You come to places like this.”

On my last night in Guadalajara, Hermano sticks a torch into my mouth and tells me how many cavities I have. He tells me I have a lot. I’ll need to come back and he’ll need to fix them.  I tell him later. I’ll come back later. And the next day I’m on a bus.


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