Trippin'

Trippin' is a collection of travel stories written by a young Australian writer. They talk of the humor of living a life on the fringe, the frustration of being down and out, and the stories of all the people he met along the way. The journey speaks to anybody who has experienced life on the road, or shares a thirst for the freedom that comes with spontaniety and transient living.

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5. A day in Alice Springs

 

Occurred - February 2011, Alice Springs (Northern Territory, Australia).

I think that I can safely say that I will be adding my experience of working in Alice Springs to my resume. I’m aware that it may not count for anything and employers may actually view me as being less intelligent for having worked there, but it’s as good of an excuse as any to show my resilient side. It took any idea of a perfect Melbourne coffee shop and replaced polite middle class customers with unwanted drunks, perfect lattes and cappuccinos with a drink that may or may not have represented a coffee (depending on the day), and stylish décor with a building that definitely failed the health and safety inspection.

But the road-trip to Darwin presented us with a number of situations that we hadn’t really written into our list of ‘shit to do before we die.’ The road did its best to throw everything at us. The sun blazed for countless hours as we saw nothing but endless red sand and dead trees. We exited road stops as fast as we entered, with the number of Aboriginal dwellers increasing as we travelled further north. Every stretch of highway that we would burn over was fuelled with the impending idea that we were entering another world. We had quite quickly become the minority, with small towns and rundown shacks populating our path.

It occurred almost in an instant. Our minds suddenly realised that we were not in the country that we had known for so long – and even if we had an idea of how it would be our expectations ruined us. The long and sparse desert had no room for comfortable road houses and service station attendants. The only attendants that manned these places were run-down white men who shared our confusion as to why they were even there. They stood at the check-outs to see every wandering Aboriginal clan enter, with the odd western family thrown into the mix. The indigenous would leave their corrugated iron shacks, park benches or patches of dirt, filling these road houses in search for cans of coke, beans, bread or milk at an inflated price. And all that we could do was look on, feeling unsafe somehow but not understanding why or if we had the right to be.

We became more strategic with every move we made. Earlier down the line we would stop for hours, smoking cigarettes near the gas pumps and hanging out on the boot of our car. We never took a look around because nothing was shocking to us. But before too long our every move was thought out. We began to roll into road houses at a slow speed, creeping up to the pumps. Jake would jump out of the driver’s seat to fill up, with me locking the doors behind him. As he stood by the side of the car waiting for the tank to fill I would gather the cash. He would then jump in as fast as he jumped out and I would run to the counter to pay.

We figured that if the Aboriginals saw two different people they might get a little disorientated and spare our souls. At every road house they would sit in large groups across the street from the petrol pumps, huffin’ fumes from a plastic bottle they had filled. These guys are called ‘The Brothers’ and always lurked around with a look that definitely didn’t indicate that they were down for a friendly chat. But to be honest, if I were an Aboriginal and saw three white city boys hoon into their town with hard rock music blasting I probably would’ve wanted to kill whoever was responsible.      

As we pulled on in to Alice Springs we found not a whole lot goin' on. The locals just sort of wandered around in groups of 3 or 4, occasionally slipping into the local supermarket to buy unnecessary quantities of VB slabs. I could never understand why they would literally fill a shopping trolley with beer and walk off with one mate to polish it off – they were practically legless before they bought it anyway.

The few tourists who walked the streets seemed to just be drinking beers to deal with the brutal heat. And it looked as if the town was set up for this, knowing when they built the place that drinking would be high on the agenda. Whichever way you looked at it, beer was life here. Beer should really be hooked to your veins on arrival, just to get you through the experience of actually being there. Countless bars with sprinklers were scattered around the town, with small indigenous galleries and souvenir shops filling the main street. It was 40 degrees, and there was practically no sight of any mental stimulation aside from the odd drunken quarrel between homeless white men and Aborigines. 

For both Jake and I this was all a surprise to witness. I had visited Alice Springs when I was younger, but I think the large group of school teachers that took us there acted as a filter to everything that was going on. It must have been like stepping foot on another planet for Yannick - a German friend who we had met in Tasmania a few weeks prior.

The three of us were still very much in a road-trip, traveller’s mindset when we arrived. We had been driving for a string of days, wearing nothing but swimming shorts and headbands. We were shirtless and smelt strongly of a range of foul body odours. But what I found strange is that nobody even seemed to take a second glance at us, even if they definitely should have. 

I quite quickly realised that everybody was already too preoccupied with their own personal hygiene to care too much about ours. It seemed to me that everybody in Alice Springs is really just looking for a place that they can wash, clean their teeth and then have a beer. Aside from these three components there weren’t really any other rules that you had to abide by in order to live there. Drunken quarrels and street fights between groups of indigenous and white males appeared to go unnoticed by the pack police standing close-by. Despite the fact that they wore high visibility vests, carried guns, knives, beating sticks and pepper spray, they seemed to be the most incompetent force of keeping law and order that I had witnessed. Perhaps they were simply as shocked as we were with what they saw occurring every day. 

The only place where some form of law and order actually seemed to exist was in the shopping centre. If you didn’t wear shoes and a shirt in here you were definitely going to know about it – especially when some seven foot Sudanese security guard was staring down at you and telling you that you weren’t welcome in the supermarket. He may have worked around the clock to keep the town centre in check, but he was definitely carrying more authority than any policeman in the town.

Within a few hours of arriving the town became flooded with torrential rain. February marks the start of the wet season for most of the north country, so it definitely gave us a sight of what was to come once we hit Darwin. We decided to casually chill outside of the children’s youth and self-help centre, which was one of the only places that we could find shelter. But after 2 or so hours the rain came to a halt and we decided that we’d better get ourselves some real accommodation.

Everywhere seemed pretty standard. Every hostel was so small that it was named after the person who had probably built it single handily. Gary’s hostel was nothing but an asylum with a six foot high fence surrounding it, and Jim’s lodge looked barely legal.

We ended up checking into a hostel called Annie’s Place. It looked quite funky and the upper veranda was filled with some traveling chillers playing guitar, smoking joints and drinking goon. I had no idea how they had found themselves in the middle of the country, but neither did I. Once we saw the bags of goon we knew that the hostel represented everything that we needed to enjoy ourselves (at least partially) whilst we formulated a plan for the coming weeks.

Everyone was congregated around the upper deck and outside bar for most of the first evening. The three of us were exposed to yet a new set of stories, with every tale of bringing in the harvest in Tasmania slowly fading and allowing room for stories of traveling Norwegians who had pushed their blown-out van through the centre of the country. It was an odd but somehow fitting place to meet a random assortment of travellers who had gathered in Alice Springs to sort out their lives.

The outside bar was filled with drunken Australian men working in the opal mines and other run-ins who had chosen to drink at most likely the busiest bar in the town. Jake and I wound up talking to a South African ex-convict who had moved to Australia with her Zimbabwean girlfriend Zulu. He was also working in the mines and was clearly stoked about his situation.

‘Ooo yeah!’ he yelped. ‘I like it ‘cos she’s got a big ass n’ she don’t speak English. I don’t speak no African.’

I didn’t really understand why he found this so awesome, but I got the general idea. He had somehow found a way to work on the mines day after day, drink heavily and keep his African girlfriend around when he needed her. He had complete power in a place like Alice Springs.

I also ludicrously decided to work in Alice Springs, if only for one day. Once we had arrived it only felt natural that we should try and get a job. Everybody was throwing themselves at you for your labour because there were more jobs than there were people. Retail shops and select cuisine restaurants were popping up to deal with the tourists or try and increase tourism, but with people still only wanting to go there as a novelty it was impossible. They still hadn’t realised that it was never going to be a popular place because it was in the middle of an arid country that takes six days to fucking cross.

But it was more of a money making goldmine than anywhere else. Jake and Yannick both nearly sealed deals with employers after being there only a couple of hours. It took me roughly two hours, which wasn’t that long really if you consider that I never asked for one. We were sitting down having coffee at a place called ‘Little Alice’ and Jake was ranting on to the owner about how I was a barista from Melbourne. I wasn’t really – I just made coffee to fund my way through University and unfortunately lived in a city that rigorously trained you to be quite good. Coffee is everything in Melbourne. For me it beats every other country that I have ever travelled to. Every single coffee shop out of the thousands of coffee shops that exist there serves everything to a high standard. I personally wasn’t really bothered too much. If I got some strong coffee with milk in it I was stoked. I just needed anything to have a cig with, really. But once I left the city and went up north I realised that I may not have cared but I was actually pretty good at it.

Telling a shop owner in Alice Springs that you even lived in Melbourne is like telling a bum that you have a free cheeseburger. Nonetheless, I should probably make it my full-time career because outside of Melbourne the coffee is just plain terrible.

The trial for this job involved me wearing no shoes and trying to show the owner how to make a decent blend. This is an unusual occurrence even in Australia. It may be common to see Aussies sporting dirty soles, but when you go for a job every normal human law still applies.

After the trail Joey approached me with star struck eyes. 'Mate, you got some serious skills - but do you think tomorrow you could wear some shoes?'

'Yeah of course dude, no problem,' I replied.

'I have some at home if you would like to use them.'

'Nah nah that’s okay, I've got my own pair - no stress.'

It was hard to believe that Joey was so far removed from the big smoke that he didn’t actually expect me to own shoes. But perhaps it was just a Northern Territory thing. About a month later Jake tried to buy some shoes in Darwin, only to find one decent shop that actually sold them.

In any case, I got the job instantly and was rostered on to open the shop the next day. I had no idea at the time, however, that I was going to be doing it alone. For some reason or another Joey had actually fired a guy that had worked there for seven months in order to employ me. I have no idea why, but apparently he hadn’t liked him since day one and was ecstatic that he had found someone ‘competent’. 

I didn’t really understand why Joey thought I was ‘that’ guy, especially considering I had been given the only set of keys to open a shop I could barely remember the name of. But the next morning came as fast as it could, and when I woke up I definitely didn’t feel like working. We had gotten drunk off cheap NT beer and I spent the night telling Spanish travellers that I was half Spanish and half Australian. Alice Springs somehow turned me into a dickhead – I will never understand it.

With Jake and Yannick not having jobs I was forced to step in. We needed a little less than a hundred dollars to get us up to Darwin, so I decided to work for one day only and not a day longer. But I didn’t come to this conclusion easily. It took a call from Joey to get me there as well, even if I was completely puzzled as to how he got my real phone number. The day prior I made sure that I had given him a fake number and refrained from telling him where I was staying. But somehow not only had he called the hostel and asked for me, but when I turned on my phone I had a missed call from him. Unfortunately my commonly used methods at avoiding responsibility around the country had backfired.

I opened the shop a little later than expected, but by 11am I was already slacking. Jake and Yannick came in for coffee, and naturally I didn’t charge them. Somehow I just treated the job, the staff and the town as a dream. I was sure that anything I did there was just going to be something that I would wake up from later. It usually takes me a few months to become lazy in a job but somehow I had smashed that record and was lagging only three hours in.

Considering the circumstances, I just treated it as a joke. But what was even more humorous was that Joey didn’t even seem to care. He sat around the back smoking cigarettes all day, leaving me to deal with every tourist and Aboriginal roamer that came stumbling in. It was no wonder why the business was failing. They had some random Melbourne dude running a completely legal business, with two other staff members coming in and out as they pleased. I had no idea but it seemed as if they were working at more than one shop and had to run in and out every day to keep up with everything.

But this actually tended to happen a lot during our travels, especially up north. In Darwin about two months later Jake and I found ourselves running a coffee shop and an adjoined bar that sat over three hundred people. Most members of staff in these hospitality jobs are even lazier than we were in Melbourne. They would barely rock up to work, and sometimes they would gap the country completely without a word. But it did start to make me wonder who would have actually been working if it wasn’t for me in this small Alice Springs café or Jake and myself in a major restaurant and bar in Darwin. Did shop owners just keep hiring people to make sure that somebody was in the shop at all hours of the day? 

It wasn’t an entire thrill ride in Alice Springs though. I had to learn everything from scratch which sucked because I wasn’t really one for hard work. I was like an infant again, pressing buttons and screaming helplessly in the hope that something good would happen. It was quite hedonistic of me, really – but not even my half completed University degree could save me here.

At one point I recall having a dispute with the 80 year old chef and owner of the local ‘Ted’s hostel’ about a meal that I didn’t even know existed. I felt like saying 'dude I've worked here for a collective total of three hours, give me a fucking break.' I mean, I didn't even know the guy and here I was having an argument with him in Alice Springs of all places.

Aside from the hilarity of it all, the day was dragging on and I became distressed. A moment of clarity only came to me towards the end of my shift. I had no idea what I was doing, and it wasn’t just about the job. I had no idea why I was in Alice Springs to begin with, and why I was taking out rubbish for a café I had somehow found myself working for. I was finally being brought out of the dream and I wanted to bust.

I knew that it was time to go and that I couldn’t lie to Joey any more than I already had. I wasn’t the most honest person - especially when it came to jobs – but I had reached the limit with this one. I returned to the café, sweaty and having just come from the alley way. I told Joey that I’d reached my witts end and needed to quit. I was almost putting on some elaborate show for him – I felt quite bad. Joey was an old, frail man and was clearly physically beaten by the years of failure. I was just another young man who could fortunately bust off to where the grass was greener.

He paid me $80 for my miserable efforts and even offered to let me live in his house so I could continue to stay there. For him, I was leaving Darwin against my will.

In any case I didn’t really care that much. Experiences out of your home city are usually just met with intensity at first until they somehow quickly fade. They never seem to have much impact on you because you can leave at any time without any consequences.

I snatched the cash from Joey and told Jake to bring the car around. He knew it was only a matter of time and had already packed everything back into the car before waiting for my call. Ten minutes later he spun the car around the corner and pulled up beside me in a burnt-out car park. Yannick was in the front seat and it felt like I hadn’t seen him for days. He had bought an esky and filled it with beers. I added 80 dollars to the pile and we set out, as recharged and ready to handle Darwin as we humanly could be.

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