Tuesday, February 10, 2009

All that glitters

"Nearly everyone you meet elsewhere in Australia will tell you, "Oh, you must see the Gold Coast. It’s awful.”
"Really", you say, intrigued, "In what way?"
"I don’t know exactly. I’ve never been there myself. Well, obviously. But it’s like-- Have you seen Muriel’s Wedding?"
"Well, it’s like that. Just like it, apparently."
So I was interested on many levels to see the Gold Coast, and disappointed on nearly every one of them. To begin with, it wasn’t tacky at all. It was just another large, impersonal, well-provisioned international resort. I could have been in Marbella or Eilat. Perfectly fine, it just wasn’t very interesting."-- "Down Under" by Bill Bryson, p. 260

Sometimes when I'm traveling I find it hard to resist putting on my Anthropologist hat. My training at school has really shaped the way I experience the world, but there are certain times when I make a conscious effort to think like an anthropologist, and my visit to the Gold Coast was certainly on of those times. Like Bryson, as I traveled north toward Queensland I was constantly told how terrible the Gold Coast was. Even Johnny, my host for the first night on the Gold Coast, called it "soulless" and compared it to LA. "Everyone is plastic here," he said.

Johnny wasn't plastic, just shy. He very sweetly offered to pick me up from Byron Bay, an hour from Gold Coast City, and drive me back to his apartment.

In any case, my motivation for visiting Gold Coast was partially pretty beaches, partially a desire to cram in as much as possible all the time (this is something I'm working on), and partially curiosity to see if a place could live up to such negative hype. Like Bryson, I found it wasn't so bad as all that--but then again, maybe I just didn't go to the right places.

I slept at Johnny's (he insisted on giving me his bedroom while he took the couch) and in the morning we dined at his favorite local cafe. We spent the few hours before he began his shift visiting three different beaches within the city limits, the surfing and swimming meccas the area is known for. First we took at Miami beach (yes, it's really called that), then walked along Broad Beach, and then explored a national park-type area where you can walk up into the bush-filled headlands and watch the surfers. The beaches were gorgeous, wide expenses of smooth sand and impossibly blue water, filled with hard bodies and little kids at surf school. We shared a butterscotch gelato milkshake as we walked (oh man, mmm) and I forgot to put sunscreen on my back, a mistake I would suffer for for the next week at least.

Johnny went to work and shortly afterward I was picked up by Erik, a quick-witted, friendly Norwegian immigrant who does TV ads for a living. After a stop at his very pretty apartment (complete with sunny balcony) we went out to Jamaican food with Sabrina, a French woman who came to Australia and found that the boyfriend she was following was not as nice as she would have liked. I was not expecting authentic Jamaican food in this opposite hemisphere, but the family who runs it were clearly Jamaican immigrants, and the fare tasted authentic (at least in my limited experience with Caribbean food.) Our waiter at the restaurant was painfully shy and could barely take our orders, speaking in a tone slightly above a whisper. I thought perhaps he was the owner's son, coerced into working for the family business, and that struck me as a bit cruel. He did, however, manage to slip in quiet questions about the US once he caught wind that that's where I was from. I always find it interesting how we are simultaneously reviled and the subject of so much fascination.

Later in the evening we were joined by Sanna (pronounced San-NA), a bombshell Finnish woman and fellow couch surfer. We spent the night at Erik's, drinking and discovering two overarching universals: funny youtube videos and dragging your friends to do obnoxious things at 1:30 AM.

To start out, we watched silly video after silly video, from classics like Teen Girl Squad and The End of the World to surreal Finnish dancing and the music video for "Take On Me." Finnish, French, American, and Norwegian, we all laughed helplessly. Around 1:30 Sanna, who was fairly well drunk, starting agitating for going to Surfers Paradise, a huge strip of clubs (some of them minus the "of") near Gold Coast City, and the main draw in the Gold Coast mystique. They urged, begged, wheedled me into going, even though I was sleepy and night clubs are not exactly my scene.

Here is where wearing the Anthropology Hat gets confusing. Is it good, or even is it important, to do things that you don't like when you travel? On the one hand, people on vacation are in some way always a bit hedonistic, doing only things they enjoy-- the point of vacation is certainly not to cause oneself discomfort. But on the other hand, people seeking to understand another culture will miss out on important components of that culture if they stay in their comfort zones and do only things they like or that are familiar to them. So where does that leave me, an extended vacationer attempting to enjoy a year experiencing new cultures? Well, on this particular night it left me under the bright lights of Surfers Paradise, having decided that I would wonder what I missed if I didn't come along. And it has left me since with food for thought as to what I'm willing to do for the sake of travel and experience, what risks I'm willing to take, and what exceptions I'm willing to make in the march of "who I am and what I like to do" outside of the US.

The answer to "what I would have missed" that night is "not much"--a street full of shined-up, over-dressed Aussies/Europeans gyrating to bad techno. It was gaudy and sort of amusing in a Crikey-look-at-the-Australian-in-its-native-environment sort of way (no, the irony of that sentences does not escape me.) But when we went to enter a club called The Bedroom and they asked for $10 at the door I decided I'd had enough. I took a taxi home and used the time to work on reading "The Graveyard Book," which I'd started originally in San Francisco but hadn't had a chance to finish. I finally did so in the morning on Erik's balcony, eating toast in the Queensland sunshine with not a techno beat to be heard or a stiletto heel to be seen. I entertain lofty goals of stretching further outside my comfort zone next time around, but you can lead a horse to water, can't teach an old dog, etc... Choose your own cliche, I enjoyed the evening and morning nonetheless.

Noontime came and Erik dropped me at the train station. Next stop: Brisbane.

Miami Beach

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