Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

An Eating Contest, An Art Deco Town, and A Sandwich Artist

Written 14 August

Shelby received the invitation around 6 PM. If she could get to Airlie Beach by 8:45 the following morning, she would have a free cruise around the Whitsundays for a day. We were still about 500km shy of that location.

The plan had been a fairly ill-conceived one. We had planned to be on the road first thing, but a contest for discount tours had kept us in Agnes Water until noon. The contest turned out to be one that I had been training for by being the guy who does stupid party tricks for the last decade. We each got a Weet-Bix (basically corn flakes pressed into a biscuit the size of a deck of cards), which we had to eat and swallow without the aid of drink. Saltine challenge. No problem. I was the first person to finish without much contest. The manner of ending the challenge was to then drink a raw egg. I’d always wanted to try it but had been hesitant due to fears of salmonella or some other similar thing. This was my excuse. As I skulled the raw egg it swished around in my mouth. It felt exactly like you’d expect it to watching it awkwardly glide around a bowl or pan. For effect I opened my mouth at the travel agent, shook my head, grinned, and gulped. The two-for-one day sailing trip of the Whitsundays was mine, as was this free breakfast.

The plan is to get a free tour of the islands anyway. Arrive in Airlie Beach – the jump off point for most tours and people with boats – and hustle. Use Couchsurfing to meet people with boats. Use Jason’s stories of cool concerts and knowing exciting people. Use Shelby’s kindhearted yet party-girl nature and the fact that she is cute and young and female. Use Phil’s good joking ability and slick accent. Use my odd combination of intelligence/wit and slumming-it/pity-gaining abilities. Put our hopes in the hands of the Universe and see what it comes back with. Perhaps we could find someone with a boat. Perhaps they have friends with boats. Maybe they need crew. Maybe they just want company and enjoy showing new faces around their corner of the tropical paradise. We hoped (and still hope) that we can make this work. Just now I have a backup plan for a cheap awesome charter day trip on a really kicking boat (meaning a really nice sailboat, not a bumping party boat).

We kicked around for another couple hours being hungover and braindead and working on sorting out mailing letters, filing taxes, getting internet, and looking into other ways to get to the islands. Somehow we didn’t leave until after 2.

If we headed up straight past national parks and hiking and forests, if we took a stretch in Rockhampton and checked out the giant cowboy bar (complete with rodeo arena out the back) for a couple minutes before getting back into the car, if we drove for about 7 hours we could reach Mackay that night. We would be only 2 hours short of Airlie Beach. We could set up camp. And at dawn, when everyone else was planning to sleep for hours more, I could head into town and sit myself down in the main heart of the old town. Mackay was largely damaged in a cyclone or some such building-destroying disaster. And is the case with established towns when that happens, the buildings are rebuilt quickly. In this case, they were built in the style of the time. Art deco.

I am an architecture appreciator. I don’t know enough to call myself an aficionado. I just know that I appreciate the look of certain styles in buildings and clothing and furniture and design. Art deco. Modernist. Art Nouveau. Bauhaus 1919. Pretty much things that came to be about a hundred years ago.

With Shelby’s call, the plan was redone. If we chilled in town for a brief time and headed on to Airlie Beach that night we could sleep in and she could make her boat. If it were strictly a case of my appreciating buildings and her getting a boat, she would still edge out. But we had called every caravan park in Mackay already and they were all full. Every motel we drove past had put out their “No” signs. The town was booked up and we would be sleeping clandestinely on a beach. We would set up in the dark. We would take down in the dark. It was a poorly thought out plan.

So was rolling into a regional town at 5 till 10 on a Monday night. Starving, we rolled up to Subway, the only non-McDonald’s establishment still open. Grocery stores were long shut. And we walked in with pleading looks to find the place being cleaned. They would make us our sandwiches. Tiffany would fill out water bottle. And then we would be kicked out so they could close for the night.

“I don’t suppose there is any way you’d know where we might be able to camp out tonight? All the caravan parks are booked up.”

“Drive down to the end of this road. Turn right. Drive to the next T intersection. Turn left. Follow it to the end. It ends at a beach. You aren’t allowed to camp there, and if they catch you they may give you a fine, but I’ve known people that have camped there before and they usually don’t patrol it.”

“Thank you so much.” I love this country. For so many reasons. But it is these little aspects of the people that really make it brighten my day. In the states you would have a hard time finding someone who knows where a hostel is. We don’t use them. People wouldn’t know where the best local place to sleep for cheap is. They have their friends crash at their place, or they get a hotel when they travel. If they know campsites, it is the type that you’d drive an RV to in a national park on vacation, not the place just out of town. But here in Australia a surprising number of people – from travel agents, to skate punks, to bartenders, to retail clerks – can tell you where to get a cheap meal, where to hang out in nature, where to park your car for the night without paying, where to camp out for cheap or for free, and where you can do these things legally or where you can do them with minimal interaction with officials.

We hung out in front of the Subway. Everyone hung out and I made the most of my short window. Camera in hand I walked up the few blocks and back, lining up shots quickly. The street was quiet save for a couple empty clubs blasting dance music. The street lights were old globes. The buildings were part colonial, part heritage-era, part art deco. The median had palm trees. The lettering on the buildings spoke of a simple and elegant time. I was at once transported to the golden days of cinema houses, to times of flappers and cigarette holders, to a world with better living through technology and the world of Bioshock. I walked lightly, breathing it all in. This was a town I would be in for less than an hour. But it was a town I could comfortably sit in for days.

There is something about certain places that calls to me, gets into my spirit, encourages my creativity, enlivens me. It can be sitting on a mountain surrounded by eucalypt trees. It can be in the shade next to a desert. It can be in the perfect temperature, when the day hovers in mid-afternoon for far longer than is technically possible, sitting in a place I call home. And it can be here, sitting at the base of buildings that sing to me of times I’ve never lived through but evoke images in my mind that comfort and inspire me. These are the buildings that call to me. And I have time for a few pictures, a few thankful thoughts, and then on to a beach destination in the hopes of hustling our way to the islands.

Back with the group I paused, I breathed it in one last time and I made my peace with leaving so quickly. They had spent the whole time trashing it as old, small, and dead. It was all of these things, but the architecture still called to me. And I realized that it wasn’t even that it was socially dead now but I’m becoming a morning person and would certainly see the life of the town in my usual waking hours with a coffee and a sandwich sitting on a bench on the main drag in the shade. I thought to FotoWeek DC. They have a contest every year during the festival where one night they let everyone loose on the town. They have from 8PM until 4AM to go out in DC, find the perfect shot, and take it. Many of the pictures come back fairly unimpressive in their technical merits. But that doesn’t matter because it is the concept, that artists are taking to the streets, they wander and look at the city at night, during the quiet, and they see a world they may not have seen before. I have wanted to do this with a friend. Just find someone who I’d be able to talk with for hours at a time and stay up all night using conversation and maybe coffee only. I have those friends. And to see the city through a photographers eye that way. I didn’t mind that it was dead. The city had much more going for it than just the people.

Then again, as we were about to find out, the people were pretty spectacular.

Tiffany came out of Subway to grab the tables. She paused and she interrupted us. “I don’t know if you guys want to, but you’re welcome to come back to my place and sleep on couches or set up your tents in the lawn. I get off in about 15 minutes and you can just follow me home.”

We were dumbfounded. We had walked into Subway just at closing, asked her for advice on camping and to fill up our water, and she had responded with an invitation back to her place. We quickly discussed and decided that blasting on Airlie tonight and sleeping in to ensure Shelby could get her boat was the right answer. It was certainly the most logical and reasonable.

But there was a strong pull in me to take Tiffany up on the offer. A random person was offering us her house. What conversations would happen? How interesting was this person? What would make her offer that to us? Knowing we would reject it, I savored what I could out of the situation once more.

Thanking her for her hospitality and kindness, I started a conversation from just inside the side door as she mopped the floors intermittently. Why was everything booked out? What was housing like in Mackay? Did she like it here? Her husband worked in the mines. She was looking to find a way to afford more of a house. We talked for a while and I got a sense of her. She was kind and awesome and an agent of random experiences.

I thanked her again and left the Subway. Then I thanked the city and wedged myself into the back of the car so we could leave it as well. We headed off in the night, in the direction of a tourist destination with a car full of people who hate package tours, with empty pockets in search of a place to pay for legit camping instead of clandestinely hoping no one will find us, away from rural towns, away from salt of the earth people, away from the working class, and onward to a place that would hopefully be relaxed, friendly, and giving.

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This entry was posted on August 23, 2012 by in Australia, Queensland (Brisbane) and tagged , , .

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