Aimless in Australia

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I was woken up at 6.34 a.m. by the sound of Chinese chatter outside my door. Room 407 was right opposite the lift and in my immediate post-waking stupor, the repeated ding-dongs and the upward and downward inflections of Mandarin amounted to a form of torture. The Great Southern Hotel where I had been staying for the past two nights was in the heart of Sydney’s Central Business District, right on the edge of China Town, and two hundred metres from Central Station, Sydney’s main transport hub. A good location no doubt, yet it was a hotel of whom only one of the adjectives in its self-appointed title was true; there was nothing great about the Great Southern Hotel, or perhaps nothing great anymore. Built in 1858 and extended to seven floors in 1903, it sported an impressive Art Deco façade and a marble laden lobby. It stood incongruously amid the eateries of China Town, surrounded by modern, ugly glass towers. Even though the rooms of the hotel had clearly been renovated recently, the renovations must have been conducted under a limited budget, for why else would the rooms fail to be either functional or beautiful? The carpet was ugly, the water-pressure non-existent, the A.C. had two settings: sweltering hot or freezing cold, the T.V. was untunable, the mattress broke your back, the blanket was covered in hair, and the fridge – whose only contents were two small packets of soured milk – stank. It reminded me of the dodgy bed and breakfasts around Sussex Gardens in Paddington. Back in 2003, during my exile in Hull, I would spend a couple of nights at one of those places on my weekend escapes to London. These were establishments that were not loved by anyone and, accordingly, did not love anyone back. You do not need to believe in Feng Shui to know that a building can repulse you, or be repulsed by you.

Good thing, then, that I was leaving. Yes, that was my last morning at the Great Southern Hotel and in Sydney. And there was no better day to leave than this. Last night, the weather had taken a turn; the sunny and pleasantly warm winter days of the previous week gave way to a daring wind and an increasingly confident rain. As the temperature dropped, my winter coat, once again, came to the forefront of my wardrobe. Yes, it was the perfect time to leave New South Wales and head to Queensland, the state famous for its sunshine, its national parks, its tropical beaches, its great reef, and its not-so-open-minded inhabitants (as the New South Welsh and the Victorians I had met in Sydney were quick to warn me). But it would be a lie if I were to claim that I had any reason to go to Queensland, or any grand plan. In fact, I had no personal reason to come to Australia, and had it not been for the invitation to speak at the seriously titled conference Culture, Cognition, and Mental Illness, it is unlikely I would have set foot on this continent.

I’ve never had a burning urge to go to Australia. It never struck me as a place I ought to visit before I’ve travelled in South America and East Asia to my satisfaction, and I haven’t yet. I have similar sentiments about Canada, a country that is so low on my list of travel priorities it is unlikely I will ever get to it. I’ve often wondered why I harbour these sentiments. To be sure, there is something unattractive about the New World nations owing to their often tarnished histories; perhaps distance has something to do with it, a point that definitely applies to Australia as I was to learn during the brutal experience of 22 hours of confinement in an economy seat; maybe there’s a personal prejudice lurking somewhere, a prejudice regularly stoked by the encounters I have had with a certain type of Australian in London. You could say that my travel consciousness of the world never really included Australia, a consciousness that, during high-school in Egypt in the 90s, was directed towards Europe.

In the late 90s and the first decade of the millennium I had my fill travelling in Europe. The first country I travelled to completely on my own was Germany in 1995, followed by Morocco in 1997, Spain in 1998, Norway in 1999, and California and Nevada in 2000. After moving to England in 2003, I made best use of my new-found proximity to Europe to explore the continent and I made no less than twenty-five visits to many of its countries. From 2006 onwards, my travel consciousness expanded markedly: China, South Africa, Mozambique, Cuba, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Namibia, Lebanon, Swaziland, Lesotho. Yet, aside from a three week visit to New Zealand in 2012 – also motivated by conference attendance – it never occurred to me to set foot in that part of the world. It’s not strange that my travel consciousness had developed in this way. When Egyptians travel, they invariably go to Europe, and in particular to the Northern and Western parts of Europe. I know very few Egyptians who have ventured beyond this region. It’s where my father cut his travelling teeth, and where I sharpened mine. And perhaps if I had not had the chance to really satisfy my European curiosity, I would not have ventured further either. But something more is going on: Egyptians have a specific idea of what travelling should be about. For many Egyptians, the idea of leaving Cairo to holiday, say, in New Delhi is absurd – why would you replace one maniacal metropolis for another? And so is the idea of going ‘camping’ – a good holiday is defined by comfort, shopping, and a smattering of culture, and not by tents, cold oats, mosquito nets, and bush toilets.

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed, Syndey 2018

(tbc someday)

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