City in Exile

Thursday
Our adventure begins in the VIP Lounge of some southern airport. While Phile and I are engaged in our electronic devices, an ageing consultant makes his observations known about the changing technological world and how we are slowly imprisoning ourselves in cells of 3G gadgets. And like, I don’t know who maybe Prospero, he has found himself trapped by his own admissions. He does have some kind of gilded cage, with a home-away-from-home on some island that he can work outside of the workplace.

Lucky Bastard. Phile and I are between interconnecting flights from the Glowing Octopus and the City of Exiles, isolated and alone across a vast desert. We are knocking back various drinks, Pure Blonde Beers, Heineken, assorted wines that are served around the local region, or selected by the airlines prestigious purchasing team. The VIP lounge is interesting. It took a while to get used to the marble toilets, the gold and silver fountain and the sound of a gong before announcements for the flights. The peacocks roaming the lounge were overkill though. Our flight is delayed allowing us another “one for the road” and then maybe one more.

The flight was relatively uneventful. Most flights I’m always reminded of those scenes from Fight Club. The airline safety brochure, the way the plane banks and shakes from turbulence, the expectation that when I look out of the window and see the wing peel away or the engine just jettison itself from the craft. Sometimes, I think that this flight will be my last, but this only happens whenever I am a passenger. And it’s much more serious in aircraft. On land the most you will ever be doing (legally) is around 120. Planes can easily do triple that and nearly a mile up in the sky. One thing goes wrong and that’s it, a 1 in a 1,000,000 chance of survival. Knowing my luck, it’s more likely going to be the shrewd business man who needs enlightenment, or the child that has done nothing but cry all through the flight, that will survive such a tragedy. Though realistically, I’m more likely to die in a car accident, or something else involved with four wheels. And maybe fireball-laced explosions.

We land in Exile and I immediately find a familiarity with it. The setting sun and, something undefinable in the air that makes it feel like Brisbane. Maybe it’s the rolling hills, or the old deco homes. This entire state was built on the wealth of iron. And this is seen everywhere in the deep red and ruddy bricks.

Our shuttle bus from the airport churns through the streets at a blinding pace. Here the Masonic Lodges are blue, and the oldest parts of the city are decorated with the Black Swan, the name of the river that courses through this distant metropolis. There are relics of old buildings where the façade only stands, like from a rejected Hollywood set piece. Other parts feel like Sydney (Leviathan) shipped here brick-by-brick. Maybe this is just nostalgia, the various trips and travel I have made to other cities in my short life.

Our first stay is at Miss Maud’s, a Swedish-style hotel, restaurant and, as I discovered, bakery. For the relatively reasonable price we paid, Phile and I were treated to excellent lodgings and food. I was so filled with seafood, roast beef and apple crumble I thought I might burst.

After a brief trip to the Belgian Beer Café, I returned to the Hotel to lie down, expecting one of the creatures from Aliens to explode from my stomach. Mind you, I felt conflicted. I was uncomfortable, but that food was really tasty.

Friday
I woke up to an alarm clock that just would not quit. Though I did keep just hitting the snooze button and not find a more permanent way of stopping the alarm. Unsure about how I might react to the dinner before, I dropped by the Miss Maud bakery, picked up a couple of croissants, a coffee and a bottle of water. Then I went for a breakfast walk. I went south towards the river, past the Supreme Court and through parks towards the shore of the river. The roads are busy with the morning rush. Cyclists and joggers, swerve to avoid each other and me. Crazy people stare, fixated at the oddest things like blades of grass or discarded plastic bags. Finishing my breakfast I survey the area of the river where this race will be fought out, on the opposite bank, the stadium has already been prepared. I walk the entire length of the temporary landing/take-off area. There are individual mini-hangars for each team that is competing.

I return to the hotel and meet up with Phile while he is enjoying a plate of bacon and eggs. I joined him, not realising that with the room that we booked, we also received a free breakfast, along with the free dinner we had last night. Phile told me about one other person in the restaurant who seemed to have some difficulty choosing food from the smorgasbord. He would look at the selection of fried eggs, all arranged neatly in rows. He would see an egg, and then use the spatula to pick it up. Just as he was about to take the egg for himself he would see another egg and then go to pick that. Each time he would pause for what seemed to be an age as if deeply considered his approach to the mechanics of manipulating the food onto his plate. Now repeat this process three to five times and then again when he went to get pancakes, bacon, hash browns, juice, toast or even additives to go with any of these foods. I dread how long it takes for that guy to go through a morning routine. People would have to dress him, otherwise, how else would he possibly get ready for work as living doorstop.

Did that sound a little cruel? Well I guess that’s what happens when I’m low on sugar and I’m hankering for pancakes.

Then Phile and I went our separate ways. I went to explore some of the shops that happened to be closed during morning walk. First on the list was a record store called Dada Records. The entry part was all T-shirts and vinyl reocrds. Then I went downstairs. There was a huge collection of CDs, especially hard to find releases like from Venetian Snares. I was blown away by this fact. If you happen to be visiting in Exile, drop by this store, you will not be disappointed. I wandered through streets to the State Art Gallery, bought a bracelet from an Italian backpacker, and ate a chicken bento while I watched the grand finals of another race occurring in this city, as local high schools competed for the fastest solar powered car. I checked out another record store called Next Level and then returned to my new hotel, which finally had a room ready for me.

The Criterion Hotel that lies in the heart of the city had a huge selection of mixed reviews that left me with zero expectations on how the whole place would be like. The building is decorated inside and out in an old style art deco. The rooms themselves are minimal, but are clean. The sheets don’t have weird stains and the room doesn’t smell funky and there is hot water in the bathroom and this water is not a dark brown. So far so good. There is no minibar, but this is great, because I don’t need the temptation for a fifteen-dollar packet of peanuts that contains around six salted stale chickpeas.

Phile and I went to the Northbridge area of the city, looking for a place to eat and this apparently was a prime district for restaurants and getting some descent eats. After much wandering, checking out the various places, we decided to eat at a place called The Greek. It was a pretty straightforward restaurant, simple, good Greek Cuisine. Though the seating arrangement inside was admirable, Phile and I could not resist sitting outside in the cool, clear evening to enjoy grilled snapper and Corfu lamb shanks. I didn’t taste the snapper, but the lamb shanks were perfect, with the meat falling away from the bone and practically dissolving in my mouth. It was sublime.

Phile and I then went hunting for a place that served up a nice Long Island Iced Tea. Unfortunately mine was not to be had as a collection of hired security apes prevented me from entering Tiger Lil’s on account of my shoes. I didn’t get it either. I really do hope those that fate spins the wheel of unusual deaths for them.

Moving on. I went home and relaxed and returned to write. I passed out somewhere at this point.

Saturday
The Qualifying rounds of the race day began. I am beginning to wonder why I am here. There is a race on, but last night was Halloween and this weekend is covers that Days of the Dead. This is the official opening (or is it close) of the harvest, the beginnings of the long sleep through winter. The dread of Christmas time, and considering the current “economic climate change”, this season will be a very frugal one. In a couple of days, the new President, be he a junior senator or ageing war veteran. All of this was considered on my way down to the pits. They were temporarily open to the public, allowing every man-jack and his dog to see the planes and their pilots up close and maybe get some autographs. Getting autographs has always been kind of a sticky subject with me. I only place myself in their shoes, random yahoos off the street asking to sign something that will end up being bid on eBay. I can’t do that to them.

I spend most of the day wandering around the city. In the distance, I can hear the roar of engines. Speeding, buzzing and roaring over the river. I look for stores and places that I saw were closed during the previous night. Empire Toys, Quality Comics, Joynt Venture, all fine stores but have simply become a blur in my memory. I need to get something to eat and then make it back to the Phil’s hotel in order to see the Qualifying round of the race. One by one, the pilots took off from the runway, entered into a holding pattern on the other side of the race. Before running the gauntlet of oversized traffic cones, they perform two loops to display themselves to the crowd and then at full throttle, at 400kmph, they catapult themselves through the first gate, shooting and churning through the chicanes and then performing something like a half Cuban eight, pushing up to 12G, coming back down through a level gate and then having to knife through the three remaining gates, the last two involving another high-G 270° turn then back through the start gate again for one more lap. Each plane repeats this course, again and again attempting to push themselves and their craft to their limits. There are twelve entrants in this race with only one being declared the winner.

Now there were some problems that I will address right now about covering this race. Firstly, the hotel room, as booked by Phile, was not as expected at the Crowne Plaza. Granted when the room was booked it was under the expectation that it was the highest room available at the time. Maybe all that was available at the time was at the first floor. Maybe there was a large collection of accurate psychics who knew when the race would be exactly on and booked all of the other rooms in advance. So this resulted in another problem, not being able to cover the entire race live in any sense. Not being able to watch the race from a hotel balcony with wi-fi and all of the other cutting-edge technology at my fingertips has left me to cover it in a more conventional way. After watching a couple of the pilots first qualifying rounds from the pool deck, we decided to go down to the river edge to see if it was a better vista. It was easier to watch the race. It was but it was like watching the race in two dimensions. Shortly afterwards, we were back at the hotel watching what was left of the qualifying rounds for the day. It was at this point of the day that we learned that Hannes Arch had enough points to be world champion and winner of the World Series, even if he were to lose the current race.

Phile and I ended up rounding up our day at a Jaw Kaiten Sushi bar that was All-You-Can-Eat. There was a 45-minute time limit to this. However, the first thing I ate had a suspicious texture and taste and I wasn’t quite sure from this point if I might survive the night. The fact that nobody else had pick the same kind of sushi only reinforced my paranoia about whether my meal would give me a rough night or bad morning. Neither of which really happened.

Sunday
The finals were on. After some wandering around in the city, it was time to meet Phile at our secret location, perched 39 levels above the City in Exile, with a near-perfect view of the entire race. From there we watched the finals for the race. There the pilots all tried to out-time each other again. Running the same laps, pulling G’s and pushing themselves and their flying machines to their limits.

At the end of the day, Hannes Arch had won the series, but only came third in the race. The day belonged to Paul Bonhomme and Nigel Lamb who got first and second respectively. Even without listening to the radio, the moment Bonhomme knew the result, you could see the joy in his flying as he performed stunts high in the blue.

Looking back, this is one of the things you look for as a spectator for an event like this. Stunts. The other thing is for the plane to have a collision with one of the many pylon gates that the planes push themselves through. The pylons are made out of material that basically destroys itself when any part of the plane comes into contact with it. Instantly the entire pylon deflates. When the plane finishes it laps, repair crews scurry out to the damages pylon and within a minute and a half, they have replaced the damaged section of the pylon and it’s reinflated ready for another flyer. The reasons behind this are simple, fast reinflation, means the race only has a short delay and more importantly, the pilots don’t have to refuel.

While one pilot is running his laps through the circuit, two others fly around in holding patterns over the city. These light aircraft burn around 80 litres of fuel in an hour. And they only carry 50 litres. So time is of the essence to keep this race running. There is only a small team of maintenance guys who flood the barge to reinflate the pylon. However, there is another boat and two guys on jet skis that are all dressed in day-glo yellow jackets. I figure they are just security.

Last night in Perth, we eat at the Sorrento Restaurant, ordering a fettuccine with chicken. Phile orders oysters and margharita pizza. The oysters weren’t on the pizza. That’s sick. The meal was good, but not totally memorable. Normal Italian cuisine.

Monday

The foul stench of a Kuwaiti livestock transport drifts through the town of Freo. The coastal breeze brings in this smell while the boat waits in port to be loaded with sheep destined to be slaughtered in the Middle East. The Red Bull Race is over and so as the last leg of our journey, Phile and I have decided to stay at Rosy O’Grady’s, an Irish Pub that is fairly close to the centre of Freo, giving us relatively easy access throughout the town and it’s tourist traps.

We took a tour of the Freo Gaol, built by the convicts themselves in the 1850’s, the place served as a way of storing society’s monsters until it was closed in the 70’s or 80’s. It was interesting to see a prison that has served well for more than a century, but I understand why they closed it down. The entire sructure is crumbling and ageing. There are new prisons of steel reinforced concrete, razor wire and panopticons.

I’m not sure what to make of Freo. It’s a port town, and I imagine it has own mix of characters, but right now I’m not sure it doesn’t have it’s own share of pirates and castaways. Parts of this town seem that way. Like the livestock ship, there is a smell of desperation in the air. That some people cannot get away even though freedom is a breath and a hasty decision away by boarding some container freighter and disappearing from these shores. Sounds tempting even to me.

Despite this, there were some surprises here. There was a record store that supplied only old vinyl. It was a refreshing twist to see everything in 12-inch format. The New Edition bookstore, a beautifully laid-out independent bookstore, I would have felt guilty not buying something there. So I ended up with the Little Red Writing Book.

We end up going to the Esplanade, there, seafood restaurants cling to the water’s edge, like large shellfish. They all try to push their own gimmick, to lure unsuspecting prey – customers. The Kailis restaurant offers the “Ultimate Seafood Experience.” However, what you will find inside is a market café where you can buy fresh seafood, or something that was deep-fried. I felt a little cheated by the sign, when I learned it was also self-service. It looked like a fast-food restaurant or just a larger version of every other seafood place I have seen on the coasts in my life. That and the cannibalistic lobsters had me a little worried. There they were on the tank, the hollow abdomen shell lay at the bottom of the tank. It’s eye sockets empty. The tail was being fought over by two other lobsters as the clung and clumsily tugged at it while trying to scrap the meat from the chitin. Joe’s Fish Shack offered a wide variety of seafood, but had an interior of some American chain restaurant, where all manner of knick-knacks and memorabilia crowded the walls. I don’t trust a place that spells the fact they serve drinks, as a “Bah”. It’s not cute, or funny.

Our choice became the Mussel Bar. This place was shaped like two pyramids glued together by their bases, with windows that hung over the window, allowing a full view of the waters of the Esplanade. The place was a little dark, maybe because it had been threatening to rain all day. I had ordered a duck confit with chicken breast stuffed with Swiss cheese and spinach. Phile ordered mussels in white wine with braised onions. A short time passed and our food arrived. The duck confit was great the fat rendered into the duck meat for perfect flavour. Phil received his mussels, in a white bowl as big as a toilet. He really enjoyed the meal, licking and supping the juices of the wine sauce from each emptied shell.

We returned to the hotel we were staying at to play a game of Hive. The Hotel was a place called Rosie O’Grady’s and we ended up with rooms that were huge, except for the bathroom. You could have shot porn here with ample space to spare. The meals weren’t half bad either.

Tuesday

Our final day. I spent some time wondering around the town, seeing the shipwreck museum and taking photos of graffiti. Last days are tense exercises for me. I spend the entire time mentally preparing myself for the whole trip back and the prospect that I will need to return to my job. At the end of the day, Phile and I spend our last moments at the Little Creatures Brewery Bar, taking in the final sites. We went to a trivia night at our hotel (coming fifth in the end) and then spending a little time at the Sail and Anchor for a game of Hive, only ending in a draw.

Wednesday
Our flight is early, with the shuttle bus slowly churning us through the streets in the midst of the morning gridlock. Traffic easily bottlenecks in Perth and large construction jobs that seem to be everywhere in this city, do not make things easier.

We hit the airport running as our flight is about to leave and then it’s five hours of single-serving meals and in-flight movies to get to Melbourne. The movie in particular was WALL-E. I didn’t listen to most of it, only deciding I was bored enough to plug my headphones in near the end. Most of the dialog consisted of two characters EVE and WALL-E saying the following lines in conversations

EVE: WALL-E!

WALL-E: EVE!

Repeat this a thousand times until I feel I should just blow my brains out.

We – finally – landed in Melbourne. While waiting in the same decked-out VIP lounge we learnt that Barack Obama had become the newly elected president of the United States. I was impressed, though I could not hear his entire victory speech over the howling of the peacocks.

Soon enough we hopped aboard another plane that soon landed in the Glowing Octopus. A taxi speeding us home, the driver gave us news about the calamities of the race that occurred only days before. Mostly involving the price of beer and the line to take a piss.

Arriving back home, I learned the best news a weary traveller can learn upon arrival: I didn’t get robbed. This time.

Looking back, getting away was probably the best thing to happen in quite some time. The City of Exiles, though strange, was inviting. Freo began to grow on me. Some day I look forward to returning. To see the sun set across the ocean, to watch a storm swell on the Indian and to smell the Desperation of the Port again.

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