About three weeks before my contract expired I came out of the Metro one night after the show and my fabulous motorbike had been nicked. Vanished. Strange moment. Where there should have been a Norton 750 Commando S, there was empty space. A small trace of tell tale engine oil on the footpath said a bike had once been there, but the huge gap sighed, intimating another kind of leak in space where big solid objects could simply disappear. The theft was quite convenient eventually because it meant I didn’t have to sell the bike - the insurance money made a major contribution to my travel fund. Julie was still keen to come with me to India, but I insisted on going alone, instinctively aware of how two travelers represent a whole world of relations migrating down the road in a kind of resistant cocoon, a complex shield inhibiting free and open exchange, a constraint on flexibility. I wanted to be an empty vessel, not the sort that makes a lot of noise, but inviting, receiving whatever and whoever might cross my path. That was the idea. The whole adventure had a ‘spiritual’ driver, at the time a solitary animal unlikely to explore the mind-boggling infinities locked up inside the brain and its chemistry holding on to someone’s hand. After having seen how the mind constructs, through the senses a particular world-view for us and that the brain is capable of composing and decomposing multiple refractions depending on what sort of input it received I was enthusiastic to understand the mechanics of it all. The tone of search was empirical and scientific. Apprentice metaphysician. These mystical ideas had found their spark in psychotropic experiences but they’d quite quickly become repetitive – it was like going to the zoo and seeing the same marvelous creatures, but they were always contained by fences and moats, unable to fully be themselves. But I’d been able to understand the significance of the visions beyond the flashy spirals of zeitgeist sensations through reading and then meditation. I studied the works of Evans-Wentz and a number of other writers with a vigour and application I’d not known before; certainly in my years of schooling, books had rarely interested me; I’d always preferred the more immediate and dynamic returns of a physical life with the synthetic visioning skill camouflaged in the unconscious, softly along for the ride, briefly revealed but not at all understood in cross-country running through chill and sleeping winter landscapes. Reading and daily practice of hatha yoga eventually created an interest in meditation. A friend of mine was a trainer for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s transcendental meditation and offered to initiate me into the ways of mantra. Mantra is essentially just a word or phrase which the practitioner repeats again and again and as my friend said acted as a kind of broom to sweep out the thoughts from the mind. You sat there sweeping away until you realised you were thinking about what you had in the fridge for dinner or you hadn’t paid the rent or what you’d said to your girlfriend, whatever, whereupon you simply went back to sweeping. The time spent thinking eventually shrank as you got better at sweeping and began to notice another layer of sensations, subtler thoughts, currents of shapes and patterns but always bringing the attention back to the sweeping. I had some startling moments, sensations of swirling energies, scents and aromas; one regular experience involved a simultaneous double spiral movement, one going up and one going down my spine, somehow interpenetrating one another as a single event; another involved a sensation of locked, rocklike stability within a completely contradictory sensation of slipperiness…these experiences would later serve to provide an existential ground to understanding the Marxist idea of a dialectic – the synthesis of two apparently oppositional ideas. But after a couple of months with the mantra the simple, overly ritualistic Indian cladding began to pall and, looking for something a little more sophisticated, I returned to my books and focus on the heady ideas of Buddhism. Slowly I put together the plan for my journey. The destination was an interior that somehow had an address in the Kumaon Hills of northern India where I would meet Lama Govinda who would make clear my next move. It seemed at this time all other matters, interests and concerns were subsumed by this one project. My father was right, I was gripped by a kind of madness, but one which turned out to have cultural authority, substantiated by centuries of tradition, not in modern European behaviours, but in India where those who turn their backs on the venal machinations of a greedy world earn appreciation and respect. I had no clear idea of any of this really I just had my plan to go overland to India. Somehow a slow journey was important, to go step by step, having an eye for the small stones, the flowers by the side of the road, the smells, the villages, the incidental encounters and experiences along the way were integral to how I would receive the destination – maybe I’d read somewhere the path is the destination but I think really I just wanted to extend as much as possible each day, each moment of the journey. By 1970 it seemed people had been going overland to India, traveling to the east (or for Australians, to the west) for at least five years so the impression I had was that I was joining the procession at the end of an era. So many had gone before that you could buy a single ticket in Darwin which would get you the cheapest passage through Timor and Indonesia to Singapore by ship, plane, and a variety of minibuses and ferries. I think it was about $140 and had no time constraints so you could spend as much time as you liked any where along the way. But I had to get to Darwin first. I bought a shoulder bag in the army disposal store a couple of doors down from Martin’s bar just down from Taylor square where I’d worked for awhile. The bag was small, just enough to fit a spare pair of pants and a couple of T shirts, some undies, tooth paste, a brush and a jumper. It had little pockets on the ends which were good for passport, tickets and maps and underneath a couple of straps to tie on a rolled up cotton blanket. I was traveling into a hot climate so a single blanket would do for night time if I had to sleep rough. Traveling light. I hitched up to Townsville and sitting in a café having some breakfast I contemplated the long hike across northern Australia to Darwin with not a lot of relish. I met a guy in the café who told me there was a good market in the Northern Territory city for second hand VW’s so I decided to buy an old one and drive across. Could even make a buck or two he said. On my way out of town I picked up a couple of hitchers. The vast distances between towns and the oppressive heat of northern Australia are unimaginable, but we found occasional shelter in the odd creek with some water for a swim to cool off and break the monotony of the faithful little air-cooled motor whirring away in the boot. Pulling over into some thin shade by a creek suddenly the world was quiet, very quiet for awhile until you’d start to hear the flies, maybe a distant crow, the slight scratchy rattle of dry gum leaves revealing a wandering breeze. It took about three days to get to Darwin and in 1971 it was a frontier town where most of the buildings seemed to be overloaded pubs rolling out so many drunks you had to step over them on the footpaths. As a counterpoint to ugly humanity the whole place was effulgent, flowing with bright, yellow trumpeting alamandas, at least a dozen different coloured bougainvilleas, mango trees heavy with yellowing fruit and masses of multihued green foliage with leaves from the finest febrile sensitive plants that close up when you touch them to leaves that wouldn’t be out of place stuck on the side of a green elephant’s head. And the fruit bats. Blackening red evening skies in their hundreds silently flowing along invisible channels to distant feeding grounds. Nobody I came across had heard of Darwin’s enthusiasm for second hand VW beetles and eventually, after about a week I’d had to sell it to a dealer. No surprises as to who got the better deal. I think it might have been cheaper to catch a bus across from Townsville, I could’ve paid for my two passengers as well. Having got rid of the first car I’d ever bought at something of a loss to the exchequer, the omens for a journey which really had no specific goals, no solid plan, were ambiguous. The general travel strategy was always cheap, overland and rough, so a premature depletion of my cash reserve didn’t make that much difference. I checked out of the boarding house and headed for the airport. When I spotted the DC3’s pewter sheen on the tarmac waiting to fly, the journey’s prospects took off. Gently stained with a deliciously mild nostalgia I strapped into a window seat as the marvelous old aeroplane rattled down the runway, lifted over Darwin harbour, banked to the north-west and hammered up through roiling high-rise storm clouds, destination: Bacau, Timor, ETA 5.40pm local time. The Portuguese hadn’t done much for their little colony in the Indonesian archipelago and aside from some dilapidated trucks, the odd car, the veneer of village life appeared largely undisturbed by the inventions and contraptions of the twentieth century. Pigs and chickens roamed all over the place, mangy dogs, small children and their rags chattered in the gaps between crumbling administration buildings and panglossian catholic churches. The authorities had however thought of the overlanding Europeans…the town itself evidently unable or unwilling to provide accommodation, the colonial power had constructed a large concrete slab on the beach covered with a tin roof and surrounded by high wire fence – this was mandatory accommodation, and after sunset, travelers were expected to be in the compound. This apartheid accommodation dividing locals from the dangerous westerners had one small advantage… it was free. Toilet arrangements are usually a considerable concern for most westerners when confronted by a hole in the ground. For a start you have to squat; even that can be too hard for many, tendons and ligaments shrunk from a lifetime sitting on chairs and couches. Toilet arrangements for the travelers in Bacau consisted of a quite sophisticated set-up. The basic idea was unchanged; it was still a hole in the ground except here it was a hole in the floor with a six foot drop to the tangle of excrement and rubbish. The sophistication came from its disposal plan. Instead of some hapless human having to lug away black drums of shit in the pre-dawn hours as happened in 1950s Sydney, there were a couple of big pigs whose apparently sole and singular delight consisted of waiting below the hole for dropping, fresh human turd which, if the timing was right – they’re not the most agile of creatures – they could snatch right out of the air to the accompaniment of some of the most unattractive slobbering grunts you’d hope never to have to associate with eating. I’d given up eating meat for some time, but I noticed a good many of my travel companions assiduously avoided the pork dishes in the local eateries.
No Man’s Land
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