Backpacker in Bondi

“Is Bondi Beach worth visiting?”

“Not if you’re not a surfer or a couple.”

So, yes.

I was in Sydney for work, and stayed in the central business district. Bondi was a good 50 minutes away by public transport. It was my last day in the city and I had a flight back home at 5 pm.

Piece of cake, you’d think. True. If you take an Uber, spend about an hour lounging in the beach, and take a cab back.

But what’s the fun in that?

The real fun lies in taking the train halfway, walking crazy distances, gaping at the ocean waves crash against the rocks, and resting on a cliff just for the thrill of it. The real fun is hunting for great food in hidden in the nooks of intersections, wolfing down a pie uncaring about appearing a barbarian—and buying more pie to go. The real fun in travelling, is cherishing every moment of it.

And that’s exactly what I did.

When I left my hotel at 9 am, it was foggy. It was about 15 degrees Celsius, but towering buildings were shrouded in a mist unlike any I’d seen in Canberra. Not at that hour, at least.

Bondi junction on a foggy morning

But the best thing about living in Canberra is that my body has adapted to cold. I was the only person walking around jacket less (or in a light jacket at times), and appearing like a complete jackass to the locals. I didn’t care, though.

When I exited the train at Bondi junction, I knew I had a long way still to go. Buses run from the junction all the way to the beach. I stood in the queue for about three minutes before realising I’d rather hike all the way. It was only a 30-minute walk, after all. I love when my mind makes spontaneous choices like that. Bonus—because I left the station, I got hot chocolate to go with my walk. Sweet.

And so I walked sipping my drink. What’s better than having smooth, extra dark hot chocolate for breakfast? The beach only made my day better.

Bondi Beach

When I arrived at last, the mist still hung around. So were enthusiastic surfers and beach goers. Everywhere I turned, eager tourists captured photographic memories while kids in shorts ran amok into the water. Volleyballers spiked at each other and laughter echoed with the waves.

My heart soared. The last time I was at a beach was during a brief, half-day, team trip with my colleagues, and I don’t even recall the time before that. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed watching the sea spray at my face. Then I turned around to the walkway along the coast—the next thirty-minutes featured sensational views, active runners, dog wakers, couples, sightseers, and me.

It’s amazing how much energy you have when you enjoy what you do. I walked about 15 kilometres that day and I although my feet killed me two days later, I didn’t feel a thing while I scaled the Bondi path. Excitement and expectation masked pain and hunger. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.

From the beach, I walked over to a famous pie shop. Funky Pies is renowned for making (and distributing across Australia!) delicious vegan pies for unreasonably reasonable prices. I had to stuff my face. And so I did.

Funky Pies

But not before I spent a good ten minutes deciding which pie to order. The variety is insane. When I did order, it arrived at my table steaming with peas and gravy on the side. I skipped the mash. Not long after I started eating, I knew I could’t stop with one. So I got one to go as well. It’s an understatement to say it was good.

When I finished, it was just past midday. Though the airport was a long way off, I ended up walking all the way back to the junction to get on the train from there.

Sydney has pretty good footpaths. Yes, it’s annoying to wait for the signals to turn green because they take much longer than they do in Canberra—thanks to the sheer amount of vehicles on the streets. Despite that though, walking was fun. It was nice to look around at the various little stores selling thousands of trinkets I’d never splurge on. Row after row were sign boards advertising cuisines from all over the world, broadcasting the incredible number of cultures that reside in Sydney.

You’ll never experience all of that on an Uber. Or a private vehicle. You’ll never enjoy a city’s true nature when you’re busy trotting along in groups, chatting away in mindless abandon. The only way to understand a city, a locality, to feel its pulse, is to take it by foot.

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Eternal fear

“But why can’t I, Dad?”

James stared into the imploring eyes of his ten-year-old. Those blue piercing eyes he’d inherited from Lisa.

James hardened his look, “Because your mother’s afraid for you.”

“But—”

James took a step closer and his son stopped protesting immediately, shoving his hands behind his back where James knew he was twisting his fingers—an anxiety coping mechanism James had instilled in him. “This conversation is over, young man. Now go to your room, and I’ll call you when it’s time for dinner.”

Rick looked so small and sad walking away with his head hanging low. But James stood stern until his son had left the room.

‘But why?’ Rick’s unfinished sentence hung over his head like a knife about to drop.

He wanted to know the answer himself. They still had a few good years before they had to worry about Rick being peer pressured into alcohol or cigarettes. Why wouldn’t his mother let him be be a normal kid and play with the others after school?

“Just the thought of it makes me uneasy, James,” she’d told him when he wondered aloud. Thrusting the empty plates in the sink, she’d turned to him before he could reply. “Let’s not talk about this anymore, ok?” And she’d opened the recently-closed bottle and poured herself another glass of wine.

But, honey. If we block out all his chances of making friends, he’ll never learn to socialise.

James wasn’t brave enough to voice his thoughts. Not when she was almost drowning her third drink.

Lisa wasn’t an alcoholic. But ever since they’d moved out here, she’d been growing increasingly insecure. She wouldn’t speak to the neighbours, even though they’d made countless efforts to be inclusive. At least she still had work to look forward to, James had assured himself. The only good thing about his sudden transfer was that Lisa’s company had a local branch as well.


“A black boy was running around with a gun—inside a school! I just saw in the news.”

Lisa took a deep breath trying to calm herself. She didn’t need her mother to remind her what she’d already seen and heard three hours ago. She never missed news like this.

“Mom, we’re in the Virgin Islands. That won’t happen here.” Not when over 70 percent of the people were black.

“But, dear, I was so scared,” trembled the voice from California. “I know it’s only for a year, and you’ll be back home soon. But I can’t sleep at night knowing what these people are capable of.”

“Mom. I gotta go. My boss is calling me right now. Talk later.”

Lisa hadn’t slept well since they’d moved from Pasadena a month ago. She didn’t need her mother blowing into an already raging fire.


“Harding?”

“Yes,” affirmed James.

“That’s right,” replied Lisa.

“I’m Estelle, the nurse at Markson Junior High. There’s been a small incident, and we’ve admitted your son at the Lifeline Childcare Hospital. Can you come right away, please?”

Lisa arrived panting and flustered, just as James was asking for directions. Estelle assured them all was well, and insisted they meet Dr. Peterson before seeing Rick. When they entered his room, the doctor was reading Agatha Christie.

A Marple mystery, classic. James would smile when he recalled the incident hours later.

Peterson offered them water and explained what had happened.

Two boys had gotten into a brawl in class and Rick had tried to intervene. In the action that followed, one small fist had shoved Rick and he’d fallen against a desk, bruising his arms. The other kid had raised the alarm and insisted on bringing him to the hospital in case Rick had hurt his head.

He hadn’t, the doctor assured the nervous couple.

Tears streamed down Lisa’s eyes. James was shaking.

“Was it a black kid?” Lisa spurt out at the doctor harshly. “The one who pushed my son?”

“Lisa—!” James wrapped an arm around her, trying to pacify her, shocked at the outburst.

The doctor was shocked too. After all, he hadn’t expected her to display such hatred. At least not when he was black himself.

But he remained calm. Retaliation made no sense in this case. Instead, he replied cooly, “In fact, no. The boy who saved your son is black, though.”

He picked up his book again. “Make of that what you will.” And continued reading.

Artists are sad people

I’ve been living in Canberra for almost two months now. And for a long time, I had trouble believing that I now lived in a first-world country. The main reason is that I grew up in a place where sidewalks are unheard of and pedestrians are more close to the pyre than they are to having priority in the streets. I walked about a kilometre every day to work and every day I grazed whizzing motorcycles, trying hard not to jump at the horns blaring next to my ear.

I don’t mean to sound depressed.

But I was.

It‘s hard not to be. In a society like that, people don’t live—they subsist. Every day is a struggle to get through. There’s always something or another to worry about: bills, rent, school fees, office politics, weak knees, unidentifiable skin allergies, lack of health insurance, yada yada.

And as a blogger, I had so much to talk about. To complain. Things I wished would be better, public services that could’ve existed, footpaths that should’ve been paved, and scowls we could do without.

All these emotions and opinions fed my creativity.

In Canberra, however, I have none of the negative feelings I used to have. For the first time in my life, I don’t have pressing matters chocking my existence, barring my experience of life.

In other words, I have almost nothing to complain about.

That’s scary. Because without something or someone to whine about, I have no writing material. I’ve hit a hurdle, except that this isn’t the dreaded writer’s block.

This is happiness.

Although it’s what I’ve always wanted to achieve for myself, this also terrifies me. Now, unlike before, I don’t have a raging flame fuming my words. Instead, I have to find an impetus elsewhere. I have to work harder to come up with material because my life has nothing newsworthy about it.

Perfect isn’t always good, remember.

When I realised this a week ago, I was anxious at first. Now that life’s plenty of good things, I didn’t know how I‘d sustain as a writer without all the bad things to reflect upon.

Then I understood something big.

So what if all I did today was bussing to the city back? So what if I’m living an ordinary life?

I’m finally free. Free to imagine.

Forward

As a first-time soldier
thrusting his face forward
took flight the new pilot
into a valley of unknown 
unaware of all the volleys
the number of pelting shots
unabashedly facing the void
with nothing to lose, all to gain
unseeing unknown forces at work
missing every torrential outburst
shot forward, heeding his captain 
right into the waiting arms of fate
went bravely
through pouring rains

A walk in the forest

During the one month that I’ve lived in Canberra, and for many before I moved, I’ve watched—with growing envy—the city’s locals share glorious pictures of the National Arboretum.

On photos it seemed such a vast area of green nothingness brimming with so much liveliness. Trees smothered brown and yellow during sunsets, mist hanging over unknown mountains, sneaky sunrises playing games of colour in the sky—every picture piqued my curiosity and intensified my urge to be there, live it, and relive it.

Except, I found out soon, the National Arboretum is unreachable by public transport. Although, somewhere in my subconsciousness, I knew I couldn’t just take the bus up there—the many jaw-drop moments I’d seen in photos revealed towering altitudes. Still, it came as a disappointment.

But rejection only makes us want something even more. And when we do get it, at last, we’ll savour it for the rest of our lives.

I will, the Arboretum.

View from the National Arboretum, Canberra
View from the National Arboretum, Canberra

Thanks to a bored brother and a good friend’s decent car, we cruised uphill with my eyes open bright and soul screaming wide. As we went higher and higher, I felt lighter. Trees have that impact on me.

When we stopped and stepped out, I grabbed my jacket to shield myself from the icy breeze. It was the first day of winter and though the sun shone bright, coldness pressed against my skin, tingling my t-shirt, and teasing my boldness to go thermal-less. It wasn’t nail biting, but just enough for me to appreciate the weather without developing a raging hatred towards winter. Nature knows how much to offer and when.

National Arboretum, Canberra
National Arboretum, Canberra

While the cold remained subtle, the views were more pronounced. As far as my eye could reach, I saw nothing but trees—steps upon steps of luscious greenery that refuse to die even in winter. From way above, I was looking down at massive branches appearing to be nothing more than bushes. Ah, Bush Capital indeed.

Amidst the sea of wood, I spotted, like deer in a jungle, benches and footpaths inviting humans to stray away from their handphones and into the amassing wilderness ahead. It wasn’t just a remedy for screen eyes, but rather an invitation to experience the vision of this great green city. With neat guidelines, pathways, and dedicated clearings to enjoy the view from, the Arboretum is the ideal environment for people to take a moment alone with nature without contaminating it with their innate humaneness.

Pine forest at the National Arboretum, Canberra
Pine forest at the National Arboretum, Canberra

As we walked down the path—a path—we came by a large row of pine trees extending to a forest behind them. While the sun prepared to step back for the day, a faint glow erupted from within and beyond the forest, emitting a clarion call for the crazy.

We heard it and heeded it. It’s enchanting to walk into a forest that’s both dense and airy at the same time. It was light enough to see through the trees, but also mysterious and unmoving. The deeper we went, the further we wanted to go. Pine trees always give each other enough space to grow and expand. Like the best of friends. And although they’re upright on a slope, they’re so well rooted that they don’t sway in threatening ways. We could walk quite far into the pine forest and still glimpse the last of the sunset through the branches.

Sunset over the National Arboretum, Canberra
Sunset over the National Arboretum, Canberra

Sitting idle at home two days later, I realised the Arboretum is more than a collection of trees in natural habitat. It’s a trove of magical views, mystic thoughts, and ground breaking moments—a much endearing, must visit.