Monday, June 11, 2012

Kings Amongst (Sub-Hu)Men

One could be forgiven for believing an over consumption of tar fumes (rising off the melting road into town) in the scorching swoon of a thirty-five degree afternoon, could have been responsible for the hallucinatory vision of a thousand Elvis’ stumbling down the main drag.

But unfortunately, blame couldn’t be palmed off so easily. The pop-star apparitions were real and happening, out amid the baking, brown countryside. The landlocked New Southern Welsh town of Parkes- renowned to UFO fanatics for its ownership of a gigantic radio telescope- also calls home to the annual Elvis Presley Festival.

What transpires over this tumultuous week in January is a lavish celebratory wake; where locals and fans from afar try to summon the spirit of the Dead King, heckling him to return and haunt every corner of Parkes’ dusty, yellowed streets.

And spook it he does- the singer’s southern drawl sloops from every dangling lamppost speaker (boxes usually reserved for blasting out Barry Manilow to annoy away alcoholics from habituating shop-front stoops) and his dulcet tones rumble through the town like tumbleweeds.
Every avenue or alleyway becomes podium to a sheep shearer or bus driver from Bondi donning the Elvis garb, the Royal Robes, who whinnies out Don’t Be Cruel with an outrageous outback twang.

What began in 1997 as the mind-warped brainchild of an Elvis nutcase named Neville (a Parkes local who was once granted a religious revelation during a journey to Graceland) attended by only a handful of farmers, has since become Presley pandemonium. It has ascended to become one of the premier deceased musician related festivals in the entire rural world- and is frequented yearly by thousands of Presley pilgrims.

Every Elvis in his cape and blue-stained shoes goes out on the town over a series of infinite evenings where the bourbons seem to rain from the ceiling like sewerage; each one keen on pashing one of the many Priscilla’s bumming around Parkes’ beer gardens in their fetching fifties housewife apparel.

Apparently, as legend insists, if enough part-time Presley’s swallow enough brain-draining liquids over the course of a festival evening, the real resurrected Elvis will descend and make a midnight appearance in the centre of the Parkes Hotel's karaoke stage- where it is claimed he bellows out the tune, Blue Moon of Kentucky ( During this eerie serenade, as tears escape the sensitive eye sockets of the audience, the King makes off with every soul left in the room, for sustenance, before heading back up to his swinging emerald chapel in the sky.


So as you can understand, upon hearing these indisputable facts, for us the surreal scene was set; kick-off 2012, this meteoric final year of the Mayan calendar, by driving out and debauching during an Elvis apocalypse. How could we go wrong?
A motley city mob of us jammed into the red wagon and jetted off toward this strange scenario- ploughing six hours from Sydney to find our fates under the flaming Elvis moon.

As we rolled into the Wild West setting of the empty outskirts streets, we were beginning to wonder; would it be all we hoped?
We needn’t have ever worried. A vicious Priscilla suddenly staggered out of a screen door following an apparent argument, and jumped into her battered old Ford- not before radiating our road-weary brows by striking a perfect princess pose- middle finger balanced pristinely aloft above the others, matched by the scowl on her fleshy jowls. We had made it.

Main Street then unfolded like a mesmerising hall-of-mirrors. Every nook and cranny was inhabited by a caped Elvis impersonator; some were back-slapping, sharing spotlights and singing, screaming Suspicious Minds, others shit-storming and howling hell into the hot afternoon.
An Aboriginal Elvis held down the front porch of the Commercial Hotel, wielding his guitar like Thor’s hammer, ready to rain destruction into the eardrums of passer-bys and pedestrians.

This crazy parade in the centre of Parkes had parched our throats; the dry wind had busted in through our shocked and gaping lips. As if in the throws of some wild delirium tremens, the necessity to get to the bar and refill as quickly as possible overtook all other urgencies.

As we stepped over the threshold of the nearest watering hole, we were hit by a sudden wall- like a schooner by a wave in a storm- of uncapped joy, peels of rankling laughter. The stark light of the afternoon disappeared into the eternal twilight of the Australian country tavern. The musty smell of soggy beermats rose up. We were home, home amongst Kings.

As the Priscilla poured our beverages from behind the bar, my staggered pallor suddenly reflected back at me- through the lenses of fifty pairs of golden glasses. Like the eyes of a fly. Elvis was everywhere, and he was watching everything.
The King’s trademark drawl was spat out in lashings of Aussie bush speak, smacked about by the troops of tradesmen who inhabited the neighbouring towns.
The mood was jaunty- fun as watching a coyote run free in a kindergarten- and we began to roll into the swing of these kooky kaisers.

Between billions of bourbons, caterwauling and cluelessness, somehow we had lost the daylight. Without any awareness of how it was humanly possible, we were now wedged in amongst an audience of inebriated Elvis’, staring at the stage.

Midnight karaoke at the Parkes Hotel.

A sudden surge of electricity pumped through the room, and for a second, the power flickered off. When the lights returned, Elvis was standing centre stage… still, silent, head bowed heavy. The same electrical thump passed through me as it had through the room, and I thought to myself, dazzled, “Was the fable true?? Blue Moon of Kentucky???”
Then, seemingly out of his underpants, the Elvis suddenly surfaced a cooked chicken. Unceremoniously, and without foreplay, he inserted his middle finger into its rear, and began pumping it with obvious zest- disembowelling it lewdly for all who were watching.

Sometimes, intermittently, he would remove his greasy digit and place it into his mouth, suckling on the succulent sauce of the chooks innards. The audience grew gaunt. And as Elvis finger-fucked that poor dead fowl, I realised; the king was truly in the building. He’d descended and changed us all, without doubt, for eternity.

He may not have played Blue Moon of Kentucky, and who cares (but with gladness) one iota.
But all the same, there was no chance in a lifetime of ever eating Kentucky Fried Chicken again.

So for all Elvis and alien watchers out there, don’t look further for interplanetary pop-stars sightings than out there on the sticky stage of the Parkes main drag during January… but be prepared to sprint at the first sign of a cooked chicken after sunset.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


The tubular bells begin to ding, harping little cries like the tapping of an abacus, pip pip pip, as the days roll closer to the inevitable let-down of One Hundred Years of Canberra.
Proudly squatting on a trough of mud, in the centre of what was surely a sacred kangaroo pissing ground for zillions of years before, is this mortuary in the middle of Australia’s southern highlands, the concrete capital.

Savour the sights of butter-shades and bland, as you roll along the stupendous serpent of Northbourne Avenue, its grassy intersections laid with beckoning floral wreaths, and occasional road accident crosses, marking the deep spiritual beliefs all Canberrans hold for religious ceremony (a better life follows…) and drunk-driving.
Soon you’ll follow this Northbourne Nullarbor into a glossy hall of apartment brick blocks, where the charming tenement tenants of the outer ‘burbs will wave their windscreen squidgees at you in welcoming delight (as well as in demand for a buck to subsidise what is a very meagre bar allotment allowed them by governmental welfare).
Snake in on the Murray’s bus to the gristly almond coated bus shelter, not quite the jolliest of centres, the Jolimont, and bare witness to an incredulous amount of newspaper browsing iPhone idolisers waiting for late transportation to ship them to sunnier shores.
Now, don’t think we’re being pessimistic here. Canbra has more than a bucket of snails to offer the visiting Frenchies, and we’re about to delve deeper into it than perhaps any one human, public servant or student savant is willing to be ready for.

In fact, it has it all!

The hexagonal doom-box of Questicon, the bizarre and smoke-invested village of midgets at Cockington Green, the rape parade disguised as a drag derby called Summernats, the mouse-ridden minge puddle of Mooseheads.
A sprawled out sleepy squalor of suburbia can be viewed at its primitive peak from the needle of the sight-seeing syringe, known as Black Mountain tower. Here you’ll view, in the distance, how the alpine backroads which shimmy out unto the horizon are stocked with unpaved, bushland turnoffs, perfect places to rubbish the remains of another ‘missing’ Fyshwick prostitute who got lippy when realising the wallet was empty.

Turtles of disputable origins ram each other in the oily depths of Lake Ginnanderra, swimming, scooting beneath the rusted wrecks of a thousand submerged shopping trolleys, disgarded relics of a student shopping run bitten sour by the realisation of pricey booze bandits hiding behind the counters of Belconnen Woolies.
Or, take the action-smacked Action buses for a lark out to the vortex of the universe, the swooning, gargling stupidity of the cyclonic Woden Bus Interchange, where somehow, for reasons unknown to earth inhabitants, all the scumbags of the solar system magnetise together in an endless chain of ciggie bummers- all reaping handouts from the same staid guy as he sits in plaid and empties his Winfields before the neighbourhood wagon rumbles in front of him, air pressure doors huffing like the sirens of the pearly gates, to fetch and drag him back to his fibro existence out on the edge of oblivion and Tuggeranong.

Canbra Firestorm! Remember that? Who said great things never came from natural disasters. It nearly wiped out Woden! Unconscionably, firetruck firebrands sucked smokes while the blazes neared their northern terraces. Heresy and speculation? Absolute wonderment abounds, in every corner of the capital, whatever you believe. For instance, wind down in the greasy nudist nest of Kambar pool, where shimmering and shaven golden ancients stand around glossing their longfellas by the banks and slithering sea-snakes dash away in repulsion. Or, if treading water in a puddle of skin flakes with a gaggle of unrobed grandfathers is not your idea of a limerick, tirade down to the mucky soil sidling against Pine Island, where you and a canoe can do whatever lonely movements towards searching for the truth you want to do, out there.

Or, take a taxi!
Be driven about by former Nigerian judges, and let them wow and regale you over their tales of lost evening ventures, hustling Tony Abbott around from bar to homosexual party tavern and back again, out on the murky peripheries of nowhere.
It has been fabled Tony Abbott dances the dirty with Phillipeano love children, all born out of wedlock, in unison like bundles of trash, from out the pulsating womb of Kim Beazley’s festering goiter. Abbott pukes out fish bones, organs and entrails from the carcasses he has recently devoured, before hopping back into the Nigerian cabbie, James’, back seat sanctuary.
“Mercy for us all, Jimmy,” Tony mumbles, wiping placenta from off his jowls. He suddenly stares, intent with rage, at the back of Jimmy’s skull. “Nobody’s told you you’re a Nigger, have they Jimmy?” Abbott slaps the back off Jimmy’s noggin, and erupts into a wolfish and clattering hee-haw.
“Please, Mr Tony, no more of this racist roughhousing,” James stoically pleads his rights.
A vicious smirk crawls upon Tony’s fish-like lips.
“Say, you ever kissed a white man before, Jimmy?” His lips start to vibrate, a little aquiver, as he leans over to shower rat-poison breath into Jimmy’s ashen eardrums.
A gleaming silver sword of drool appeared on Tony Abbott’s lip tip, at this point, as James recalled (as he whisked me away to the resort which stood alone in the world for its advertising slogan, “a giggle for every shit supplied”, at the address Somewhere Between Desolation and Bliss) that yes, a shimmying globule of spittle ran from cheek to knee, like a shivering spindle of spider web, unnoticed by its carnivorous landlord.
“Kiss me now, James,” Tony Abbott tortured the black man with his tongue against the nape of his neck.
James closed his one working eye, in fear, at the knowledge Tony Abbott kept a loaded Smith and Wesson packed within his trouser fly.
“Please, Mr Tony. Please.”
Abbott threw his head back in a wild reptilian guffaw.
“AAAAAAHA!” He titled menacingly downwards, back into his seat, slumping out of the purveying street-light which had previously been dousing a grotesque hue of orange over his narrow and bepimpled tender.
“Alright James. Alright,” Tony lit a Cuban, and passed it up to the terrified driver in the front seat. “Take this cab to The Lodge. We’re going to have a laugh tonight.”
James recalls at this point, Tony unzipped his pant fly, and clicked the revolver's safety into the off position. James rolled the cab, at the hurtling speed Abbott demanded, into the ocean of the zone of night between 3AM and dawn.
“All those orange streetlights, like communist fireflies, buzzing in rows, all the way out to the airport…” James recollected, somehow poetically, as I removed myself from the sick scents which still lingered from Abbott’s Cubanos in the back seat of the lorry.

And there it stood; The Outhouse on the Outskirts of Oblivion. A dingy raucous was expunging through the bars of the lamp shining windows, and filtering off down the street.
The Rolling Stones “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” puffed through my consciousness like a death adder, and I followed this evidently fateful chain of circumstances and ambled into the din.
Speakers sided the dirty stage as an old man with fossilised whiskers chundered along through the lyrics, “Bad, bad, Leroy Brown, baddest cat in the whole damn town,” as the rest of the mob descended into a dismal chaos. I obliged myself by offering a beer to my gullet, and joined the swamp.

So, with all this tourist hyper-babble written and divulged, it is time for the due bureaucratic process, typical of this town, to take place so we all can get prepared for a slight clamour, a fart-sized magnitude of excitement over a few fireworks and celebrations next year.
Wave your flags, Canberra, as you wrinkle into the soggy skin of a successful centenarian in 2013.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Day 30. Heading Back to Baby on Beautiful Street

Don’t ever try and accomplish anything on a Lithuanian national holiday.
It won’t happen.
I would hate for an incident to occur on these days- a child trapped down an elevator shaft, an elephant escaped from the zoo- nobody would be there to aid in it, no service even exists.

It was the last day of the job, and things weren’t looking easy.
For starters, the final story was a huge pile of RUBBISH-
A trip out to the local landfill.

“How do you like that Chanel No. 5?” The unshaven owner of the landfill laughed at me, as I gripped my nose in grief.

Other than him, nobody was around to give quotes, to open doors, or even to usher me away like an alley cat.
So I decided, liberally, to fuck work and finish the remainder of what I had to do out here in peace.
To go looking for filthy Russian pornography, moose meat, and to flog my clothing to a hobo- the usual ‘To Do’ list for a person with only a fraction of the mind left to do them.

First, the clothing had to go. A rucksack packed full of dirty and disintegrating garments: jackets, sneakers, work shoes, sleeve shirts and a whole other universe of unknowables. These items were never going to make it on the plane, or I may be considered a terrorist. A stinking bomb threat. They had to go.
So I stalked the streets, for two days running: and even on non-national holidays, the second-hand shops didn’t want a whiff of my stale goods.
It was a gift! My generosity was met, usually, with startled looks, and hand-halting refusals. On the other, less peaceable instances, it was greeted with anger.
As if I were an exhibitionist, flashing faulty gadgets, rather than giving away a bounty of free threads.
They’re not big on recycling, the Lithos. Well, if you took a trip to the local landfill and inhaled those sweet shades of Chanel No. 5, you’d see that with 100 thousand tonnes of trash piling in per week, ‘recycling’, was a term used exclusively in regards to underwear overuse on more than a five day sequence.

But I was determined not to simply ditch this beggar's birthday suit- they had memories! Stained and tainted memories.

From the brown Bulgarian dinner jacket, which was bought, worn and ruined for a Bob Dylan concert in Sofia, to the swiss-cheesy timberlands (affirmatively the most comfortable shoes in the solar system) which padded my toes as the lone walkers all the way from Australia.
But on the national holiday- there was no hope! Nothing was open.
Various items of clothing began to be scattered out like confetti.
A three-dollar shirt in a skip-bin, an ill-fitting pair of boots strung by the laces around a shut second-hand shop’s doorknob.

Then, out of the mid-morning haze he appeared: the handsome, soon-to-be recipient of this one-of-a-kind classic dinner jacket, which was once owned by Bob Dylan (well, that would be the write up on ebay).
He was digging through a dumpster. Suddenly, his hand, caked in murk, began operating like one of those claw-machines at a supermarket which picks up plush toys- and from the depths of the dumper he pulled out a slimy old Playboy.

“Would I be ‘killing two rabbits with one bullet’ here (as the Lithuanian saying goes)?” a shot of clarity grabbed at me. “I’d have my friend’s requested Russian sleaze AND a new owner for my fine brown blazer.”
I approached him without caution. On closer inspection of his treasured magazine, his grimy teeth glinting in glee at it, I decided he could keep it.
Then, as I removed the jacket from my Santa’s sack, his eyes jumped joyously!
Or more so, with confusion and hesitancy. But still, they jumped.
Somewhere in the field of his Delirium Tremens, his brains did fathom that this was a freebie, and so he accepted it: the brown, candle-wax coated blazer, (with the hole cut into the inside lapel, a specific invention to allow the sneaking of long necks at short notice, for taking tallboys to the lowlifes, into small-town high-brow events).
So off he staggered, away into the park- to prance and pass out in fashion, wearing a jacket I could never give justice to.

And so onward! This final parade around my private paradise, where the sun was singing on this holiday surrounding Saint Mary- a religious occasion for the sinners to go out and get shitfaced. Hallelujah!
All will be forgiven, (just as long as somebody sells me my moose-meat).

One of the few souvenirs I had under request to bring back, was this, a tin filled with flayed hoofs and antlers. Yeesh. A Bullwinkle barbeque was on the cards.
Once this was sorted- and it was, somehow, without worries- there was but one item left on the rotten agenda.

My scraggly best mate, an alleged artist from Sydney, had sent through his demand for, quote, “weird low-budget European pornography.”
I’m not sure what lead him to believe I had any (what??) but I didn’t, so I trailed off on the seedy search.
I had expectations of frog-fetishes, midget kebabs, broke-back mounting of mules, grotesque insertions of gherkins in surgery, and homo-exotic chainsaw feuds.
But did I mention it was a national holiday??
“HALLELUJAH!” I screamed into the mid-summer miasma, at finding yet another shop shut.
I noticed at this stage: I was sweating profusely from the heat, and even shaking slightly, like a nut from nervous energy.
Had I succumbed to the lifestyle out here?
Was I now a Litho-maniac??
Before I dwelt too long on this thought, I rustled through my backpack, and pulled out my papers. I double-checked the documents.
Flight tomorrow.
Heading back to baby on Beautiful Street.
Ach so dann, zurück nach mein heim an Schönstraße.
Das bedeutet, kein mehr ‘Litho-Mania’.

And I exhaled an infinite sigh of relief- I let it float there for a second, in front of me, so I could watch it and realise it was real- then I let the wind whip it away, and add it to the trillions of sighs hovering out in the atmosphere.

But still I had these trusty timberland shoes- what to do with them?
Without really thinking, I tied the laces together, and with an almighty fling, set them free from the threat of the landfill. (Actually, I gave them three 'almighty flings', before they decided to settle there, swaying steady in the late afternoon).
I gazed up at the electricity wire, which was humming from the base power disturbed by the two new intruders, and wondered...
...Where would the world be flinging this Old Boot to next?
And I took a last look around, at a magnificent moon, ate up the summer air, then turned to go- off to offer an untranslatable fit of farewell, to the one-armed old man in the Blocks.
And already wishing I had my shoes back.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Day 29. Atop the Hill of Three Crosses

There is a back path of wooden planks, which cuts alongside the river Neris, and spirals up to the grassy peak of the Hill of Three Crosses.
If you’re prepared to take this treacherous route, tripping and stumbling over rotted boards and branches, you are rewarded with your own section of solitude- isolated from the hordes of Russians, Poles and Western tourists who hike up the opposing side of the hill every day for the view.
The ulterior pathway comes equipped with human headspace. Out of the crevasse of computer life, away from the businesses of supermarket shopping, landlords and all other forms of daily modern labour, the hill unwinds into a peaceful shroud of pines and Baltic bird-life.

As the wilderness engulfed me, I could feel the last four months begin to unfurl. Now that this space was here, and I was away from everyday stresses which reached out to woe me- deadlines, faultlines, lifelines- now retrospect was opening up in my weary head like an acid trip.

The rain was dripping gently, constant, almost tropically. The trees, likewise, posted a canopy of umbrellas, not unlike a wetland rainforest. I ventured through this jungle, lost almost in a stream of subconscious.

With thoughts otherwise occupied, I failed to notice: I was suddenly standing on the edge of the apex, the Three Crosses to my side.
The city of Vilnius lay gracefully below- an aging Lithuanian beauty, decked out in all her exotic finery, and sprawled lazily in the grey day upon her brass bed of histories, mysteries and time. How much this old lady had been through!
The green domes of the Orthodox Church glinted out in the distance. Gedimino’s Castle cast her rigid shadow over the bubbling Neris. The television tower spurted from the ground like a syringe on the backdrop. And closer, a spiky sea of steeples rose from out of the outcrop of Baroque architecture, communist blocks, and Old Town abodes.
She had been good to me, this lovely lady, this Vilnius.
But I was leaving her all the same.

Peering out over the panorama, still emersed in the solitude, I began to realise how needless, pointless and petty all my modern stresses were.
In a seamless segueway, thoughts began to drift toward a different old Lithuanian lady, one who too, like me, had left the lanes of Vilnius, though long ago, and not entirely by choice.

In the 1940s, my grandmother spent days hiding in the forest, bunking on a blanket, alongside her husband, my grandfather, as the soviets rounded up and deported her neighbours to Siberia. She was forbidden from attending her studies once the Nazis rolled in- an SS guard had towered outside her faculty, clutching a machine-gun, for anyone who tried to argue. She bore two children, my uncle and my aunt, who were forced into the whirlwind of wartime displacement as she was. Clutching her kleine kinder under her arms, along with whatever possessions she could carry, she was forced to flee her home country, alone. She never saw her parents again. Like a lost soul, separated from her husband, she trekked her way through the train lines, to Germany, by the war’s end. She walked by and through blazes of gunfire, burnt bodies in totalled towns. She slept in train stations, in mossy bunkers, in blasted-out barns, her suitcase acting as an occasional cradle for her baby. She gave life to a third child, who would have been the sibling closest to my mother’s age. Due to neglect by staff in a Naples hospital, the baby succumbed to a fever and passed away.

Though this is, of course, a grotesquely short and straggly summary, it’s just to give you an idea.
My grandmother stands as one of the world’s great survivors. A boat person who made it to Australia in 1949, with her life, her husband and her two children in tow.
She settled down as a teacher, in Sale, Victoria, where her fourth child was born: a pretty girl (who would become, among many other prosperous things, my mother).

Now 91 years old, my grandmother resides in a Sydney nursing home. Here she reads, reflects, relearns languages, and watches as Crimson Rosellas and Rainbow Lorikeets feed from birdseed on her balcony. Her husband has long since died. Her eldest son, living in Melbourne, turns 70 this year.
In 25-odd years, I have never heard my grandmother whisper a negative word about life.
The optimism imbued within her has been the biggest inspiration of my time. Through everything that went to pass within her days: As a wartime refugee, to a migrant, to a published Australian writer. Through everything she saw, read, loved, lost, grieved for, longed for, fought for and forgot: she’s always radiated the light of an essential faith in humankind. She recently sent me an email, in regards to the tsunami in Japan. Within it was a mention, in a fleeting sentence, which one was left to think of for days, about the absolute fragility of human existence.
Without boundaries of class or wealth, the beggars, the boat people, the blind or the bankers- we all are of this same broken breed.
This is one thing she has taught me.

As I wrote this entry, sitting, huddled against a birch tree (ants crawling up my leg!) atop the Hill of Three Crosses, life suddenly made a heap of instant sense.
In the dedication page of her book, Elena’s Journey, (which was written and published in both Lithuanian and English- her third language, of about five) it reads:
to my Grandchildren.

All her struggles brought us into existence, and allowed us to grow up in the free world of Australia.
As I prepared myself to replicate a version of her feat: leaving from Lithuania, off toward a modern Germany, the irony was inescapable.
Though I had no firm grasp of where my life was leading, I would be travelling in the comfort of today’s transport (yeh, well, Ryanair…) with a certainty of a bed and a friendly face at the other end.
In other words: the exact same trip, but the complete opposite.
Now I get ready to retrace her steps, at least, figuratively, and in a different dimension. In gratitude and thanks for all I’ve seen, in some ways I've been living the free life she could never stick around for, out here in Lithuania.

I descended the Hill of Three Crosses, stumbling back down the same soggy path- with no more stress for what’s to come, and only hope imprinted on my brow.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Day 28. Off the Rails, and Return to Reality

An Ode Owed to Re-Finding the Fields of the Frangipanis

In a whine and a bump, the train shunted out of the station.
The monoliths of Minsk shrunk and sank beneath the hills, as if the city was suddenly swallowed.
As we rolled along, the rafters underneath the carriage rumbled in rhythmic consistency to the thudding clunks inside my chest.
B-dm, b-dm, b-dm…continuous on both sides, yet somehow without depth, devoid of all but the solitude of silence.
B-dm, b-dm, b-dm, b-dm…

The carriage was dolled up almost like somebody else’s motor home. Quasi-Persian rugs reached along the corridor, hiding trapdoors and crap stains and whatever else for which a train from Minsk could possibly use a Quasi-Persian rug.
Furry blankets out of granny’s cupboard shimmied down from their receptacles, acting as makeshift shade-cloths for the late-afternoon glassy glare.

In this train, opposed to the last, the passengers were sectioned off from each other, cordoned into individual blue patterned booths. These were perfect for diving into an undisturbed doze, but a spoiler for any amount of people perversion you wished to partake in on your lonely way back to base-camp.

Not that there were floods of other persons anyhow- a toddler squealed a tantrum three rows to the rear, and the occasional boulders of a middle aged redhead rolled around the aisle.
Our hostess was a cougar.
Her shimmering pink lip gloss emboldened only her mouth, leaving the rest of her faded features to face the havoc caused at every curve or canter the pink lips pulled.

There were no shiny statues singing from this corner either. The twine stitching was tethering.
The luggage beneath my eyes was all bloated at the seams.
In numb facilitation, I turned them to ponder the scenery steaming past.
Again, we encountered the slideshow projector changing the image at rapid rates.
The landscape outside now ran like what I imagined were Welsh valleys, out in a sprint to the horizon until they hit the pillaring pine forests halting them to a dead end.
A Dead End.
Minsk rode through my mind like a masquerade: A brilliant ballroom blazing from the unknown. The communist city skirted within me, making me marvel at how I could probably never reach behind its many masks.
I pulled out the pocketbook and began jotting jagged notes.
The City of the Red Star…’ and I began to scrawl and salivate.

Distance and time spindled by, and energy ebbed.
Twelve or so pages of haggard handwriting later, I phased out, in pure just, nothing.
Staring into the glass rather than through it, it reflected a curious waste.
What had happened?
Without caring to dwell on the wreckage waiting to keep me hostage, I flipped a few pages forward.
The fresh paper sat stagnant: the gaping rock face of a clear white one, blinding me like a blizzard without a word as its imprint.
Villages unwound outside, and I wondered what would happen if I got off and stayed there, forever, but I decided probably nothing reasonable or worthwhile.
So I pulled up my posture, which was slumped and folded, like a rotted drawbridge to an abandoned castle.
And I peered out into the backwoods of the Belarusian fields, which were washing to purple from the onset of sunset: or rather, I pierced my peering through them too.
All I could see was one shining ember pulling apart the cobwebs of my consciousness. And she wore a straw hat.
And she shimmered like the Sun when you stare at it.
And I wrote and I scribbled a million mishandled consonances, exclamations and vowels from the curls of my bowels, to the Girl of the Frangipanis.

The pen was perspiring, rather than printing, and continued to drip out all the sorry story sorrows which one can only muster once the custard sweetening the brow has disappeared and left the being to fear and frowns.

Then as if the time machine had touched down, the slide projector was trapped in a spin-cycle and the whole system was slipping out of my grasp, we were there, pulling into the station, back in Lithuania.
Back to Vilnius: where I’ve called my home for the last how many months.

Sweeping myself and mystuff out of the wagon in a flurry of forced movement, I began to trail my steps out of the station.
“Back from the mayhem of Minsk. I made it,” the thought wanted to win. “I’m home now.”
Though there was something not especially homey about it all, but I couldn't quite work out why not.
And then the loudspeaker lauded out in thick Lithuanian:
“The train on Platform One is going to Moscow, via St Petersburg. Now boarding, Platform One, Moscow via St Petersburg.”
Wow. The cusp of real Russia. Was I really so far away, from where I once was?
What does it even mean? How did I get all the way out here?

The automatic doors steamed open in answer, and beckoned me out to the last of the light. I craned my head to look down the Crescent.
The exterior of Vilnius station was abuzz from clacking faces checking clocks, grinning, greeting, grabbing palms in pleasure, happy haunches heading to their shacks of shade and safety.
The loudspeaker announcement echoed through my memory. A group of latecomer Russians bustled past to purchase tickets.
As they swore in Cyrillic I wondered again, how did I get all the way out here?
B-dm, b-dm, b-dm, b-dm…

I could tell there was a sense of The Ending in the air.
The rain began to tumble down, and I laughed and removed my hat: as if ready to begin busking to the heavens.
I began to whistle dixie, and turned to trundle back up to The Blocks: ready for a new week, ready for anything.
The Sun was in my mind, the raindrops racing down my jacket.
I soon became saturated as the monsoon marooned me further, which seemed to trigger an unreasonably hilarious internal tickle.
The meaningless drinking, stinking, and pelting every which way but homewards: All parts of the Litho-Mania: was soon coming to a closure.
“YAHOO!” I bellowed it into the wall of water, and tap-danced the rest of the route back to base.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Day 27. The City of the Red Star

Gazing out the tinted glass of their tenth storey apartment window, over what appeared as an infinite cemetery of humongous housing blocks, my focus pulled into alertness.
This was it.
Minsk, Belarus: The Iron Curtain’s Final Frontier.

As these impressions washed over me, I stood oblivious to the Russian hooting of my ‘aunty’ beckoning me back for borsch.
Though I soon roused, and scooped up a hearty three courses of curious cuisine (what is ‘buckwheat’ anyhow?).
As I ate, my cousin bundled our belongings together ready to hit the station for the city.
Soon, down in the metro, I stood unmoving, in awe. The image which smashed normality like, well, a hammer, was a beachball-sized slogan of Bolshevik bad times, pillaring over the main platform.
Televisions mounted on either side of it blared synchronous broadcasts: grainy footage of rollerskating couples, laughing children, layered within a montage of men labouring. It was accompanied by the beeping soundtrack of an eighties Atari cartridge. The actor builders were sweating and smiling, apparently from the satisfaction of work ethic.
Get the message? Socialism is Great!
And don’t breathe otherwise.

As a westerner whose childhood was as unrelated to the USSR as iPods to the elderly, it was a stun-gun to the senses. Was anyone believing this guff?
Bewildered, I scanned the starring actors of this wild new movie manifesting around me.
Military musclemen sporting red stars were the first noticeable breed.
But upon closer look: they were just kids! My cousin caught my astonishment.
“Men must go to the military once they finish university, for one year. University starts around age seventeen here, so they have to go in pretty early,” she informed me in her manner of preciseness.
Military culture continues to serve as a major portion of Minsk existence, at least visually. As the bus leads you in to the centre, billboards of anonymous generals, decked out like Christmas trees in baubles and badges of a thousand unknown triumphs, dot the main roads as reminders.

As we waited, darting my eyes further across the platform, an aesthetic anomaly, bar, a happier one, diverted the attention span.
The fairer sex, certainly were. They sauntered around as if, in their border locked and propaganda pasted island, they had absolutely no idea of their own absolute and copious finery.
As if out of Dior’s production line, they flowed in rivers, one by one by the next, and I thought of converting to communism.
“So this is why Lukashenko keeps the doors closed, the sly fox,” I surmised, hit by a bullet of clarity. It made perfect sense!
All these hammers and sickles were constantly going at it hammer and tongs.
Who would want to let the rest of the world in?
We boarded the bus, as I wallowed in my whiplash.

As I began to soak in the magnitude, just the utter difference from life I had always known, looking around I realised how actually everything was really tidy, elegant and grand.
We were approaching the inner sanctum now, the Minsk main centre.
As we rode, my cousin began to dish out in energy some skerricks of everyday life lived under the thumb of a ‘dictator,’ here named President Alexander Lukashenko.

She studied at a university, was free to learn languages, make friends, take trips.
Alexander Lukashenko was not all bad, she told me. While he has spoilt a lot of things, and selfishly bars his own little enclave from being able to join the remainder of modern Europe, he does do his bit for Belarusian present.
“The new communications faculty by the main train station is just one of many new projects,” she enlightened me, pointing towards a glimmering glass shark’s fin of modern architecture.
And the streets were admittedly spotless- later in the evening we even saw a cleanup truck individually torch-lighting, from the passenger seat, every single bin as it mowed along.
Who would have imagined Alexander was an anal retentive? But there it was.
But the weak points of the politics, in her perspective, shining sidewalks aside, soon surfaced.
“Lukashenko does not give his people a say,” she told me, shaking her head in grim acceptance.
Each week, protests take place in different locations around the city, trying to create noise about democracy and fair rights, though demonstrators often face the threat of being imprisoned for it.
“He builds huge new stadiums, and our main railway station is said to be one of the best in Europe. But when it comes to repairing hospitals? I went with a friend of mine to one in an outskirts district, and it looked like out of a horror movie. Walls peeling, insects, the whole thing,” she revealed in her broad Russian accent.

Though the middle of Minsk, where people were watching, did not immediately appear like it was without money.
Strange, considering the massive debt the country was currently weighed underneath.
“The government tells us the economy is good, much money is being earned. But then, why do things cost four times as much as six months ago? They are lying to us,” she shook her head in scepticism.
Belarus encountered an all-encompassing currency crash in May, when their money was devalued by over 50 percent. A kilogram of apples today costs around 12 thousand Belarusian rubles, when before it cost just three or four.
So where had all the money gone?
Standing beneath the skyline, it began to come clear.
“Woah…” was the deepest offering I could muster.
Monoliths weaved out into the distance, huge, freshly painted power-block buildings stretching into the horizon.
As if someone had taken a polaroid of baroque Vienna, enlarged it by ten-fold and slapped it to the brim with hammers and sickles, here would stand the blueprint of inner Minsk.
It was clean, beautiful and not just slightly BIZARRE.
The checklist for travel hopes was now getting close to complete.

It was a soviet memorabilia museum, but alive and buzzing. And not at all downtrodden or cast, (perhaps because the sun was pouring down, unable to be controlled by the vigilant visa restrictions).

For all the civil rights infringements we’ve heard about, though I’m positive they exist, as there is no democracy in some hounds dictatorship, for today, I saw a different side to the city.
The sun glinted off the glasses of the girls strolling past, emersed in chatter with umpteen companions or hugging close to a boyfriends (just don’t mention homosexuality). Families sat about sharing a giggle or a grill-plate, and gangs of apparently sass-loving sailors, wearing berets and singlets, donning sickles and all, commemorating some kind of Air Force holiday, were entertaining themselves with bottles long into the afternoon.
“Is this the everyday fashion in Minsk?” I looked at my cousin, flabbergasted at the sailor’s popeyed styling.

So it was, in short, sunny day anywhere, free world or far away.

We trundled by the cinema, a futuristic movie-set from the 1930s: an idea of what the world could have looked like, if Stalin had won the war.
“Woah,” I repeated my witty commentary.
Another aspect to the city was its adorning paraphernalia.
In the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia, the hammer and sickle slogan is banned, and production of it is counted as criminal.
In Poland, the distribution of such symbols can carry a sentence of two years in jail.
In a call for it to be forbidden EU-wide, ministers of these countries composed a letter stating the denial of soviet war crimes, and their underlying connection to this symbol, "should be treated the same way as the denial of the Holocaust. They must be banned by law."
But not in Belarus.
Here, as if paying tribute to the conquering totalitarians of the past, the hammers happily own the awnings of the buildings young and old-
-including above McDonalds.

This trendy capitalistic hotspot of Maccas is a fashionable choice for young Minskians.
“Some people go there every night. It’s always crowded. Don’t ask me why!” my cousin laughed.
Well, if fighting against the system here means chowing upon a cheeseburger, it sounds feasible enough for a fashion to me.

As we strolled onwards, the buildings kept growing bigger, more daunting and dominant. As if we were meant to notice our own insignificance shadowed by some omnipresent power: there lorded the KGB headquarters (dubbed by my cousin, ‘The Residence of Evil’) and the government house. Lukashenko’s residence itself was an icebox version of Buckingham Palace. One lone open window on the top floor wavered slowly on the soft breeze: The President catching some rays? We decided not to dally and find out, as a guard patting his pistol began to eyeball us.
Then, as if the time machine had finally delivered us to the source of the soviet saturation, there he stood.

Superhuman sized, the statue of Lenin brought a look of immense distaste into my cousin’s features. Behind him, the Belarusian parliament balanced her flag of red and green, as storm clouds appeared to circle over it ominously, and singularly, as the rest of the city remained immersed in sunlight.
She scoffed at the scene.
“Nobody likes Lenin,” she spat.
This tourist however, modelled for a photo in shameless excitement.
Though, the situation was tense. We were unsure if political photography was legal, and so were hesitant to take a dozen snaps. Two or three, a glimpse of a guard lingering in the background, four, and we were gone.
Trailing through the digital images later, the fleeting tourist photograph seemed to capture more than just a novelty niche of Europe.
There was something about the greyness which rang out a tone of sorrow, about this buzzing and beautiful city continuing to be trapped behind the bars of bureaucratic and traditional totalitarianism.
Though, all seemed not lost.
T-shirts emblazoning way-out western logos, band names, English taglines were everywhere. It seemed it was a quiet rebellion, or at least, the proof of a population not resigning to living behind the cultural walls this dictator has set up.
“Lukashenko has to die one day,” my cousin shrugged the unwavering truth.

Minsk was a hospitable place, more so than other capitals in the EU which I’ve visited… *cough* Bucharest *cough*…coated, as it was, in flowers and peaceable people.
Untainted by the throngs of western tourists (well, almost) and free of mass migrations from unsavoury sections of Euro society…
Minsk has got it made!
As a grin straddled my gums and these thoughts ran through me like quicksilver, my cousin suddenly gravitated me back down to land.
We were standing outside a Metro station, one with colourful CCCP murals livening its exterior. A cluster of candles dripping wax on black shawls placed over boxes was positioned outside the entrance, nestled between hand-placed crucifixes and icons.
“This is where the bombings happened, in April,” she spoke solemnly, as it had affected her too. “A music teacher from my school was injured. Another boy, from my uni, was badly hurt.”
She was referring to the results of a bomb attack, an explosion of nails and ball bearings, this year, from where fourteen people were killed, and at least two hundred others badly injured.
“It was just so strange, to happen in Minsk. We are such a small country, we can’t harm any others. The only people we could injure are our own,” she said in grief.
Nobody really knows who was behind the bombings. A popular media myth was Lukashenko set it up, to detract attention from political opposition.
Whatever the case, Minsk remains a contradictive city: unburdened from the outside turmoil of what Lukashenko calls “nauseating” democracy, though at times, at war within itself.

Without noticing it, the cloak of night had covered the block surroundings, and we set off back towards her micro-district home.
While trudging the ten kilometres, we wandered into a spectacular marvel of Minsk: electronic strobes emitting from the thousands of bulbs attached to the rhombicuboctahedron (that’s right) shaped national library.
The show danced like manic fireworks, furnishing the back boroughs from its lightning shards.
“Wow,” I mumbled another wisdom. Then wondered: “But how can they afford the electricity?”
My cousin shrugged. This left me with the impression, its best not to ask how or why or what.
In Minsk, the best thing to do was soak in as much as you could, then be on your way: like a sponge at the edge of a mysterious ocean.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Day 26. On the Rails to White Russia

As a foreigner bouncing along on the bumpy train to Minsk, the feeling is somewhat akin to slouching in a hospital waiting room, before an operation. You have no idea what to expect, but know the outcome is going to go one of two ways: either you’ll end up better than before, or you’ll be dead.

Crazy Russian rap blared through the carriage as we rolled out of Vilnius. We were zooming towards what has become known in newspapers as “Europe’s Last Dictatorship,” the capital of Belarus.
Not exactly the darling of travel brochures, all reports had alerted me the rail to Minsk was more like a time machine than a train.
Just three hours away from Lithuania’s capital and you enter a zone known like North Korea, what can today safely be described as a living Soviet museum.
The intrigue had always been inside to explore this unknown city- probably primarily because authorities always tried to keep you out of there. There were steadfast visa restrictions for outsiders, and you needed an invitation from somebody living inside to be allowed into what were, presumably, their huge cast-iron gates.
Now pocketing my accepted, stamped and raring little visa card, I was boarded and off, being showered on by rowdy Belarusian Muzak.

It happened as such: After a cyclone of organisation, tableside discussions with distant cousins, it had become evident- there was a link awaiting me in Minsk.
The daughter of the deceased brother of my mother’s cousin’s father: obscure to understate it mildly, lived within the borders of dictator Lukashenko’s love-in.
The relation was unknown to me as the country she slept in.
From family broadcasts, the latest report was the young lady was accustoming her mirror to a recent bout of rhinoplasty, so even if I’d ever seen a photo of her, chances were slim as her new sinus for an automatic recognition.
But, all the same, the generosity from the unknown is often incomparable, so I gratefully accepted the offer, and happily took the stranger’s candy.
So with all the legwork done, I leant back in the anti-chamber of this crazy commie caboose, and let the scene flow over me.

Outside the window, a lush wash of absinthe appeared to have been doused upon the fields. Everything was sparkling in a somewhat surreal tinge of green.
But maybe it was merely my eyesight.
Synagogue domes burst out through the rooves of farmhouses, suicidal billy goats strayed close to the tracks, and villagers in army get-up visored palms over their working brows to catch a look at the steaming engine speeding by.
Inside the cabin, it was a slightly scarier story.
Passengers in my vicinity ranged from garish princesses to bearded vigilantes, none of whom I could brave eye contact with at this early hour of the AM.
I ignored the squeeze and kept busy percolating over my migration forms, trying to maintain a steady pen grip.
But it worked for only so long. My brain was whipping up a blend of thoughts: What could be expected within the borders of this, a landlocked country so regularly vindicated by global media as being chock full of abuses on human rights?
I had read profusely about the amount of journalists they had locked up in Minsk for expressing their views in the free press.
I double checked my visa form:
Occupation: NONE.
I was safer as a drifter than a journalist, I surmised. I leant my head back, clamped my eyelids, and tried to block out the commie crud serenading from the speakers.
The Belarusian border was sidling in out of the distance.
The border crossing was less of a bullfight than predicted. A few minor discrepancies did arise, however. A rather severely handsome woman placed my documents upon her reader. All seemed okay…’but what kind of planet are you from?’ steamed from her glare.
She shot me a threatening question in Russian.
Non comprehendo, lady.
The surname ‘Garrick’ suddenly threw her into a tailspin of confusion and disbelief: as if its utterance brought on some kind of perverse and powerful curse, or were the secret codename of her turbulent lover lost in battle an eon ago.
Though, after some repugnance at my lack of comprehension, she tossed me my papers and left me to transfix on my thoughts once again.

Soon enough the train would be rolling in. Soon enough we would see what all this hubbub was about.
As if someone had quickly changed the slide on the projector, the backdrop altered completely from just ten minutes prior. The farmers toiling in their trenches, their cows half-dazed by the passing commotion were no more to be seen.

Now outside the glass, hundreds of obelisks, like the anthills of the Australian outback, though on a rather grander, greyer scale, jammed the horizon. These were the housing complexes, brimming from the million plus population of Minsk. Manmade escarpments of gritty greys were juxtaposed between brazenly bizarre buildings painted in the fluorescent fashions of Gold Coast teenagers.
Alongside of the train tracks, construction workers leant against crates of supplies, wiping perspiration on already soaked shirt sleeves.
The interesting aspect: some of their caps donned the hammer and sickle slogan.
A rising intensity grew from inside me. I swallowed it down as if it were medicine, and carried on looking.
The station was blooming into focus now. The brakes tweeted out in the universal language, “we’ve made it,” jangling us around like seeds in a pod. The lulling Russian strumming began to peter out.
We had made it to Minsk.
Scrambling rather than stepping out of the carriage, the station immediately dizzied me. I became aware, if these mysterious cousins weren’t here to meet me, I would have to toil with public telephone boxes, a feat comparable to opening the tomb of Tutankhamen.
For forty seconds standing motionless, I waited for fate to guide me.
Behold! I was greeted by amiable countenances, excited to see somebody from the strange kangaroo-eating village of Australia.
The lady there to greet me, to save confusion, ‘my aunty’, was a striking character. Her face was dwarfed by magnificent pink-rimmed spectacles, and a firestorm of curly red hair, dangling each which way, down to her shoulders. A chunk of amber was slung around her neck. My cousin was black haired, youthful, and, thankfully, English spoken.
“Hi! You made it! Are you really from Australia?”
At this point, I was no longer sure. It felt as though I’d been living in space for the last years, but I decided to let it drop.
“Sure! Great to be here!”
And no sooner had these words been spoken, did I notice the so-called City Gates dominating the backdrop.

Soviet statues lined the gates like snipers. Somehow, it was a refreshing sight to see all these hearty soldiers, buxom farmer lasses, beckoning the crowds, all of us equally, with fearsome waves of welcome.
Again the intensity rose, but once more it was swallowed back down like a bad batch of cough syrup.
“Mother asks, are you hungry? She’s just made a big batch of borsch,” my cousin questioned.
Multiple hungers were writhing within me, but I couldn’t be sure if one of them was borsch. But hastily I shot back a,
“Sure, I’d love to!”
And without further explanation, we dove down into the Minsk city metro, bobbing like pinballs through the socialist streams of peek hour workers.

(To Be Continued…)