Blessed to be a witness

Monday, 1st August


My first impressions of Brisbane, despite the cold, were favourable: a taxi from the airport who used the meter with little or no chance of fraud; clean, efficient roads; white clapboard houses on hills lit by a clear morning light, looking like San Francisco; the gleaming, tasteful, medium-height skyscrapers of the Central Business District, or CBD as such a thing is called all over Australia.

However, my second impression was not so good. For reasons of budget, we're booked into the cheapest accommodation in the city. These places are known collectively as 'backpackers' - i.e. "I am staying at a backpackers." Being backpackers ourselves, this seemed most appropriate. However, the kind of backpacker housed in such places is not the sort that we had become used to in Asia. Whereas Asian backpackers range in age from seventeen to seventy, and most are there because they want to be in an alien culture (whether they respect that culture or not is irrelevant), the backpackers we encountered in Brisbane appeared to be there because they wanted to see just how much booze they could fit down one throat.

Almost exclusively Irish and British teenagers, presumably they were away for the first time and making the most of the apron strings being cut. We'd been warned that the east coast of Oz was like Ibiza, but didn't expect to experience it on our first night in Brisbane, when at three, and then four, in the morning, we had to appeal to the reception desk to remove the half-a-dozen or so Irish teens who had decided to have an impromptu party in the corridor outside our room - presumably to avoid waking their dorm-mates, but not taking into account, or caring, that the walls were paper-thin.

I was surprised by how corporate the backpacking experience was. Backpackers can get packaged up from airport to hostel up and down the coast, waving backpacker hostel chain discount cards, and never once have to think or fend for themselves. I was also surprised by the price. We knew Australia would be more expensive than Asia, but not more expensive than Ireland. Our lowest-of-the-low budget accommodation is in the region of AUS$60 (€35) per room per night. Drinks are anything up to AUS$6.50, and food is similarly priced. I am doubting we'll be able to get to the end of this part of the trip without going severely overdrawn.

Way more so than any other western country I've been in, the CBD of Brisbane is a little slice of America: Quizno's, Subway, McDonald's, KFC, Burger King (though for some reason this is called Hungry Jack's, though it does still carry Whoppers and has the same logo). Our cultural experience of Australia that first night was to go to the cinema to see 'The Island'. It was rubbish.

The party district, akin to Temple Bar in Dublin or Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong, is just round the corner from our hostel, in a street called Brunswick Mall. It didn't impress us much more than anywhere else in Brisbane. Each bar was pumping the loudest music I've ever heard outside a stadium gig, with teenage Irish and Brits falling over and vomiting both inside and outside. We tried vainly to find something that fit our demographic a little more: '30-somethings who like a lively atmosphere, a few drinks, a game of pool and a nice chat'. There's a gap in the market if any entrepreneur in Brissy is interested. There were some quieter places near the CBD, but they were full of besuited 50-somethings, and charge exorbitant prices.

We did try for a game of pool in a nearby pub on the Sunday afternoon, but instead experienced our first taste of the famous Aussie machismo. I approached an empty table, deposited my $3 into it, and was immediately accosted by a drunk overweight guy in a pink sports shirt with an oversize white turned-up collar. "Where was your money??" he demanded. I explained that the table had been empty when I arrived at it. It seemed he had just finished a game, and he and all his friends had disappeared to the toilet or to get change. Not my fault, and I personally would have conceded the point. Not Mr Pink, though. He stared me out. "You challenging me, then?" he asked, and I presumed hopefully that this was in reference to a pool game rather than a fight.

"Look," I said, "I don't want to make an issue of it. Just give me the $3 I put into the machine and you can play." He grudgingly handed over the money and resumed playing, looking rather smug, and we retired. Not quite the generosity of spirit we'd come to expect in the countries we'd visited before.

On the plus side, people really do say "g'day" instead of "hello", and "how you goin'" instead of anything else.

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