Life can be very cruel sometimes, particularly when it comes to middle class white people and their admirable struggle to find somewhere exotic and worldly where they can just relax while enjoying some budget cocktails and the occasional Unique Cultural Experience™. Poor Carolyn Webb learned that the hard way this week when Fairfax published her thoughtful, well considered and entirely well researched travel piece on Bali, a place she opens by saying she’s never wanted to go to.
You know how it is. You work tirelessly all year round, saving enough pennies so you can board a budget airline to one of the cheap, tropical paradises dotted around Australia in the hope that you can just let it all hang out, catch some rays and for one brief moment forget how hard it is back home with a stable economy propping up your solid income. Of course, you don’t want to go to one of those shitholes like Bali or Thailand, because you know from fourth hand anecdotal experience that other people have been there and hated it, plus got bum sick in the first three days because the natives didn’t bother posting signs reminding them not to drink the tap water. Rude.
Unfortunately, all of the countries that are a bit more comfortably like ours (while still retaining a degree of clean, oriental charm) are too pricey to really count. Sure, Singapore serves a mean chili crab and the locals all have the decency to speak English – but that just makes it harder to barter with them. Ripping off streetside vendors in some banana republic is one thing, but decent Australians like you and I don’t feel comfortable bartering with people like us. It just seems oppressive somehow; like you’re taking advantage of someone or hiring a white maid. It’s a rock and a hard place, and it can keep people tossing on their posturepedics.
But evidently Webb’s lifelong aversion to Bali took an about turn this month when she decided to relax her stringent high standards and rough it in the luxury resort region of Ubud. There was a writers festival on, and I guess Webb likes books. Besides, travel is all about being open minded right? And despite the obvious drawbacks of a country like Bali – the accessibility, the opportunities to explore cultural diversity, its inability to be easily understood by people who’ve never been and don’t care to have their expectations challenged – Webb conceded there might be positives, and they might make up for Bali’s audacity to exist in the first place.
It’s a trap that sadly all too many trusting white people have fallen into in their quest to have a dirt cheap holiday experience while still discovering The Real Asia.
You may have heard of The Real Asia. Here, you’ll discover wonderfully exotic things like “temples, verdant rice fields and friendly people”, all of which will satisfy the superior white person cynicism to deliver some kind of epiphany about the transcendental properties of witnessing humble familial domesticity in the face of hardship.
Unfortunately, the Real Asia seems to have disappeared and buggered if I can find it. It used to be that you could stroll down dirt roads in a floaty skirt and a large hat marveling at the simplicity of the brown folk and the stalwart acceptance of their lot in life. I mean, if watching a group of children playing soccer with a broken stick as if it were a real toy doesn’t bring tears to your eyes then I don’t know what will. It’s inspiring, because it has that special ability to remind us as white people that, while we may have been too corrupted by technology and luxury to appreciate the simple pleasures of tilling rice fields, we can take lots of photographs of other people doing it to demonstrate to the folks back home just how culturally diverse and inquisitive we are.
But I don’t know. Somewhere along the way, the Real Asia disappeared and honest people like Webb have had to suffer the fall out of a plastic society erecting itself in its place. I mean, it’s so artificial now that it might as well be a hologram or a global social movement. It’s not even that they don’t speak English – they don’t even speak logic. When Webb (patiently) tried to explain to a motorbike tout that if she paid him a pre-arranged price to climb aboard his vehicle and travel from A to B at a sensible 30km/h, she would effectively be declaring herself a prostitute, he looked at her like she’d ‘just told him the sun was a balloon’! Brown people are funny.
And then there are all the souvenir shops and wooden cocks floating about the place. Back in the Real Asia, you could take long peaceful strolls through bucolic fields and contemplate the brave journey of self-discovery you’d embarked upon, scrolling away in your journal while leaning up against a tree. You could smile beatifically at the locals, who flitted around the edge of your existence just enough that you could establish a comprehensive sense of them but whose awe at your superiority ensured they maintained a respectable distance. If you were a man, you could embark on a deeply intense relationship with a beautiful woman who may not have shared your mother tongue but with whom your heart and genitals spoke fluent Love. For women, a gnarled old man would impart some wisdom upon them that would seem initially nonsensical, but whose meaning would later reveal itself at a key crossroads in their spiritual quest. This was Asia. This was Real.
Now it’s all sell, sell, sell as Webb so brutally discovered. It’s as if Asians – or the Balinese in this case – seem to think that they can exploit innocent western travelers by slowly and steadfastly chipping away at the integrity of white cultural traditions like bargain hunting and getting-away-from-it-all. What was once a beautiful cultural experience for westerners has been consumed by the voracious greed of the locals who have the audacity to try and make a quick buck at the expense of package tourists. Now you can’t even enjoy a $3 cocktail in peace without some grabby little Balinese person trying to get you to help them put food on their family’s table.
Listen. It’s all about respect. Westerners aren’t being respected and it’s as simple as that. How can the Balinese possibly hope for someone like Webb to visit them and coo over their cute little temples when they insist on making their presence so obviously felt? Surely it would make more sense for them to move quietly in the background, only scurrying out to pull back the mosquito nets or sensitively rub oil into feet stressed out from a hard day of strolling through cheap shops manned by respectfully subdued shopkeepers?
Carolyn Webb’s is just one of the many tragic stories to rise up out of the horrors of western tourism junkets to Asia. What we need is a movement to address the overwhelming corruption of developing nations when it comes to hosting rich, privileged westerners. I advocate a sit in, an international protest. Occupy Melbourne (Airport)! We shall not be overcome! SOLIDARITY!
And together, maybe, we can create real change. For white people.
For the record, I was at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival too. I spent a lot of time ‘being a prostitute’.
Welcome to a new segment I like to call Consumer Watchdog. In it, I will be reviewing things that people send me and ask me to do. I will accept free offers of anything in exchange for an honest review that might possibly have little to do with buzzwords and review talk, but will certainly speak to an experience with the item. For instance, I would like to review some Nike running shoes and also maybe a Mac Airbook so that I may speak to the experience of owning these things and not having to pay for them.
It’s an interesting business, this freelancing lark. As many of my friends will attest to, usually through a combination of rolled eyes and ever so slight tutting noises, there’s no money in it. They know this more than anyone, because they’ll be the ones forced to bankroll you every time you let slip that it’s been four days since you’ve had a meal that hasn’t come entirely from a selection of cans you found lurking at the back of the cupboard – cans you’re not even sure you bought to be honest, but may have come with the house and are thus somewhere in the region of eleventy billion years old.
You know you’ve become a Real Freelancer when your friends finally just ask for the bill at a restaurant and discreetly pay it, saving you from the embarrassment of having to offer them your last $16.20 (and it’s always the handful of coins that’s the clincher – there’s nothing quite so heartbreaking as thinking 85c increases your contribution rather than merely humiliates it). In fact, it is in the state of finally being able to declare bankruptcy of both the moral and financial kind that you’ll know you’ve really succeeded in this shitty little career path.
However, en route to bohemenian homelessness, you might’ve managed to carve some kind of niche for yourself on ‘the internet’ or in some other kind of media capacity that certainly pays you diddly squat but means that marginally more people know your name than just your immediate family and creditors. And the upside to this state of affairs is that very occasionally people give you things for free, be they items or experiences or the giddying sense that perhaps you’re not quite as useless as you seem to think you are.
Such is the case for me. Despite having my bank account temporarily shut down while overseas due to non payments of visa bills, an overwhelming presence of canned tuna in my diet and a general feeling of fear every time a blocked number calls me, I’ve also clocked some rather remarkable good fortune this year alone. From an all expenses paid trip to the Eyre Peninsula, to two weeks of free accommodation in Ubud, to review books galore, I’ve had some pretty magical times.
Recently, I was contacted by a company in Adelaide asking if I wanted to test drive one of their cars for a weekend. I had just organized –via twitter, so never let it be said it does nothing for you – to test drive a Ford Focus 2012 in Melbourne. Picking up on this, the social media guru at Adrian Brien Auto in Adelaide asked me if I’d like to do the same for them. Naturally, I did like.
It all came at a very convenient time. I was just about to move to Melbourne and I’d been putting off collecting the last of my things from my da’s house up near the Barossa. He’d just sold it, and I’d been told in no uncertain terms that I needed to ‘get my shit out of there before the new owners see it and reneg on the deal’. Being in sudden possession of a vehicle meant that instead of sitting at home and willing it to happen, the whole operation could be done in little more than a couple of hours. Sure, it happened WHILE the new owners were actually physically moving in, but the point is that it got DONE. And I think we can all agree that this means I am now 100% responsible for my da being able to sell his house, which means that he should definitely give me $10,000 finder’s fee or whatever you want to call it so I can pay off my credit card. It just seems fair.
The folk at Adrian Brien Auto were a delight to deal with. Not only were they prepared to give a Home Brand hack like me a chance to drive one of their very special new vehicles around for a whole weekend, they were also very charming and diverse in the sense that they have an Asian fellow working as their marketer, a Geordie working as a salesman and what I think was a South African (but he could be New Zealander – can anyone EVER tell those two apart except for the fact that South Africa is totally pants at the rugger these days?) working behind a desk in what seemed to be a Very Important Capacity, and I think diversity is important in this day and age. I liked them all very much, and freely admitted that while I know next to zero about the actual mechanics of cars, I do know that I prefer them when they come in silver or white and when they have a cup holder.
Luckily, the Ford Focus they loaned me had all of these things, plus some kind of fancy radar on the back that told me when I was about to run over a small child or a lamp post. The only thing I would have liked to try out a little more was the Bluetooth in the stereo, because later experience demonstrated to me that you could make phone calls using the radio, and this is something that I’ve decided to make my new favourite activity. Unfortunately, I’d gotten drunk at the Metro not two nights earlier and inadvertently thrown my iTellingBone into the toilet, drowning it dead and leaving me adrift and somewhat panicky for the entire time it was in the Telling Bone Hospital.
Consequently I had nothing to tweet/facebook/photograph etc the experience with. It was almost like being human again. As it is, you’ll have to imagine what it must have looked like to see me driving towards the river with my roller derby helmet on, one rollerskate on my non driving foot and my derby wife Bones in the seat next to me so that we could enjoy the last strains of a humid afternoon and roll along the river. I asked our third party member Smashy to take some photos of us on her iTellingBone, which she did, but she didn’t email them to me because she is a) a bad friend and b) has a life that exists outside of indulging me.
I also drove the car to the Body Art shop on Grange Rd so that I could have a consult about my next tattoo. This is another thing that having a car is handy for – chasing down situations in which you can pay inordinate amounts of money to have your body permanently marked with things your father refers to as ‘future regrets’. I don’t see how one could possibly regret having the face of a lady fighter pilot draped in leopard print, goggles and the words MILE DIE CLUB emblazoned across their arm, but everyone’s different. He likes Tom Clancy. I don’t judge.
(Sidenote: I shall be getting this tattoo on December 23 as my Christmas present to myself, and it will be on display at the Wheatsheaf on December 24 for Emily Davis and my third annual Creepy Country Christmas Carol Spectacular/Hootenanny. You should come. It’s free of both entry charge and annoying old relatives.)
But back to the moving part. If you want to move house, you should do it with Emily O, because she is a taskmaster. She very logically pointed out to me that the interior of the Ford Focus, while roomy and comfortable and potentially okay to live in for a while if you are between houses and have a low sense of self worth, was not in fact Mary Poppins’ handbag or one of those tents that they use in Harry Potter that folds out and has a small house inside. And because I’m prone to digression, can I just add that I don’t understand how you can be poor in the Potterverse like the Weasleys are poor, because if Mrs. Weasley can make her washing up do itself, and cook amazing food with only her wand and the power of her mind, why can’t they have decent robes and stuff? Perhaps she’s just not very good at the repairing side of domesticity, which seems odd because she’s clearly characterized as the Ideal Mother, but then, perhaps JK Rowling’s making some keen and subtle observations about the limited nature of that trope and how women shouldn’t try and force themselves into it because it’s an impossible ideal and striving to do so will only leave you disappointed so best just accept your strengths and weaknesses and set about whipping up a nice stew. But none of that explains why she knits them jumpers every year.
Anyway, the point is that Emily was very good at getting me to be strict on throwing things away. Having recently finished Corinne Grant’s very excellent and charming memoir, ‘Lessons in Letting Go’ (and you should all go and get a copy because she’s not just bitingly clever, she’s also very lovely and there are moments where I had real simpatico with her within her story and plus I have stood in her company and watched two monkeys unexpectedly begin to rut, and that bonds people) I understand the important in Letting Go Of Useless Shit. Do I really need that pile of notes I passed back and forth during school? No. Send it to the bin. Why am I still holding on to one shoe? I know I tell myself it would make a unique and interesting pot plant, but the fact is I don’t garden and I always think things will look better than they actually do. I point to my entire concept of fashion from the age of 8 through to 26 as evidence.
In the end, Emily let me bring just enough boxes that would fit in the back of the Focus and we dumped the rest of them at the op shop. In truth, we used three op shops because I didn’t think it fair to force kind hearted charity workers to determine the possible benefits of a bag of mismatched socks and whether or not anything can be done with a pile of old magazines from 1992. Along the way – and I swear to Dumbledore this isn’t made up to appease the gents who leant me a car – she told me that her mother had bought her car from Adrian Brien Auto after being unimpressed by the lack of service from a competing car company. Intending to buy that day, she got sick of being ignored and went up to Adrian Brien Auto where she was treated very well indeed and bought a car within a matter of minutes or maybe even hours, I can’t remember which.
And so the moral of that story is, don’t stand for bad service when you’re forking out money for an item that begins to depreciate instantly, because that’s a shitty experience in and of itself and you may as well have the process facilitated by people who will be nice to you and make you a cup of tea and give you a nice little brochure that you can put in your new car’s glove compartment that will always remind you of how much you didn’t hate the experience of buying something that will never, ever be worth as much as you paid for it unless we experience an apocalypse and all the cars stop except for yours because you’ve managed to convert the engine into some kind of solar powered battery that runs on faith and then you become a revered taxi driver in a dystopian new world where currency is water and breathable cotton shirts. But then you wouldn’t want to sell it because it’s become your livelihood. So the second moral of the story is, you never know what’s going to happen and it’s best to be prepared.
So buy a car. From Adrian Brien Auto. You won’t regret it AND you’ll probably save some lives one day. Also, they sell second cars because some people are a bit poorer than others, and they sell Hyundais because some people like small cars. I told you: diversity.