One day in Coffs Harbour, Australia, that made me feel a million miles from home.
I didn’t rate Coffs Harbour. Neither did Martyn or Kristina. It has a lovely beach but I recently described the town itself as ‘a hole’. Even a couple of Aussies we met in Munich described it in less than flattering terms. The hostel we stayed at in Coffs had a bar that was like an Australian version of Phoenix Nights. But an unpleasantly coarse version. Arriving at Coffs Harbour was the start of a few days in which I’ve never felt so removed from daily life.
By that point I’d been on the road for about two months, had traveled by rail from Estonia to Hong Kong, and had yet to experience any real sense of culture shock apart from the Chinese obsession with my hair colour. I’d taken to welcoming torrential Chinese rain with a huge smile because it meant that I could walk the streets with an umbrella pulled low over my head. It gave me my anonymity back again and let me look at my surroundings without feeling like I was in a zoo. At the time my strange behaviour didn’t even feel that weird, China never felt that foreign. Which perplexes me even today because more recently Japan had the same effect on me. Martyn used to walk several metres behind me so that he could enjoy watching all the Chinese faces enjoying seeing me walk past them. However it is Coffs Harbour marks the place that I realised I’d lost contact with the ‘reality’ of ordinary life in the UK, if only for a little while.
The beach had been explored in depth. I’d spent a good half an hour watching the tiny blue crabs scuttle away from the vibrations of my oncoming footsteps and had now resorted to trying to sneak up on them. Partly successful in that empty adventure we strolled up the Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve peninsular and just sat on the dark rocks for a while, watching the Pacific Ocean doing its thing. Far out to the east we could see migrating whales heading north, puffs of spray heralding their sporadic appearances above the waterline. We were all coolly detached from each other that day. Perhaps the previous night’s bar experience had dampened our spirits, or maybe Coffs just snagged us in the doldrums, but we were each doing our separate thing.
Eventually we gathered our thoughts and our little trio together and headed towards the ‘Town Centre’, such as it is, in order to find food and drink. It was only whilst passing a small parade of shops that I saw the news that Tony Blair had resigned as Prime Minister – something that would have been massive back home, with everyone talking about it.
Even more momentous news came just after that when I discovered that His Holiness Thierry Henry had been sold by Arsenal to Barcelona for what I regarded as a travesty of a fee. Again, this would have been big news in my routine little world at home. To make it worse I discovered that this was actually old news, I had been oblivious of his sale for at least a few days by now. I was adrift culturally, politically, mentally, for the first time. Even in China the news was always being shown on screens in little cafes. Despite the Mandarin language barrier you could always make a fair guesstimate at what was happening.
Still mulling over the annoyance and disappointment of Henry’s departure we slid into a hotel bar advertising Tooheys lager on it’s painted wood facade. It was one of those ‘You aren’t supposed to be here’ moments as everyone looked around at us. Why not? It was about 4pm and the bar was fairly busy. Faces turned back to their beers and only every now and then did someone eye us critically. We collected three schooners of beer from the bar and uncomfortably occupied one of those tables that looks more like a huge stool. One with a small circular top that you have to stand beside because no chair would ever be high enough to be convenient.
We had barely begun our drinks when the background hubbub rose several notches. Two scantily-clad women in their mid to late twenties tottered out of a back doorway and entered the saloon with trays. We now noticed that apart from one very loud and brusque woman, and Kristina and the two lingerie ladies, everyone was a leering male. Kristina had felt uncomfortable when she walked in, and now I understood that the guys had been checking her out to see if she too was going to be part of the afternoon’s entertainment.
The serving girls passed around the room delivering fresh beer, collecting glasses, and bending over a lot more more than would normally be a professional necessity. Well, one of them did. Brunette seemed to be in her element with snappy retorts to the drawled suggestions of the punters. Blonde was far less ballsy and tended to lurk near the counter self-consciously. As the Brunette came past us we all noticed how scabby her face was. The blonde was suffering from a similar though slightly less severe outbreak of what we were probably on safe ground in assuming was herpes simplex. Classy establishment was this one…
Again the three of us had fallen silent but now we were united in feeling completely alien. We necked our drinks and quietly left the drooling blokes to it. Up in ‘Town’ we found a less rique pub but didn’t go in as a fight erupted outside the front doors just as it came in sight. Annoyed with the whole town we walked alongside the dismal Pacific Highway until the turn off back to our beach-side hostel.
I hated the room we were in, I hated the hostel, and I hated Coffs Harbour, but I also hated the fact that my first real sense of discombobulation came from such a grimy place. On reflection, several years on, I believe that these are the times we are supposed to be aiming for when we travel the world. We are looking for disconnection from home. Or are we? I don’t think I necessarily do. I feel I’m more likely to be looking for what joins us all together rather than what sets us apart. When I don’t care much for the annoying differences it’s hard to experience culture shock. I think my internal outrage at the time was due to it being so unexpected after so many wonderful places that I would rather have experienced this feeling. But then I just wouldn’t have felt that way in better places. The feeling that I was so removed from home just happened to coincide with really bad football news, the slow descent towards a Conservative-led austerity government, waitresses I was afraid to take beer from, and nowhere except Domino’s Pizza to eat (which ordinarily wouldn’t be a bad thing but I had consumed a LOT of Domino’s Pizza in the weeks before Coffs).
I do wonder at myself sometimes for not feeling that elusive culture shock more often. Am I not connecting with each location properly? Or am I just too relaxed and quick to accept whatever comes my way? I’m quite a calm person in normal life so I tend to lean towards the latter.
And I’m glad of that because the likes of Thierry Henry, Tony Blair, and Herpes all spoiling my day at the same time ever again can’t be likely. For that I have good reason to be cheerful and to enjoy the memory of Coffs Harbour because it will be a rare backpacking day indeed that beats this one. Hindsight is a fine thing.