Tag Archives: australia

Missive #17 – Hitchers of Oz ebook

29 Oct

Our Australian publisher, Glass House, has made The Hitchers of Oz, a fine anthology of down under-set hitchhiking stories available as an ebook right about here.

Read the scribblings by JP Donleavy, Sam Neill, Chuck D, Craig Revel Horwood and many others from various walks of life.

Tragedies of Exile Part II

10 Oct


As I leave the post office of the University of the Philippines, a hirsute giant in a Panama hat rushes over to me. His breath is supernaturally bad. His ginger beard is spiky with sweat. He clamps a sweaty hand to my shoulder. “Name’s Bryant,” he says in fast and frantic Californian. “You a writer, man?” Before I can answer, he talks over me. “I’m a writer, see this?” He opens up a kit bag full of poorly-printed self-published books.

I try to ask him what he writes, but he talks over me again. “I’ve had the damnedest luck since I came to Manila. I wrote a PhD and they failed me ‘cause we had an argument. That wouldn’t happen in countries like ours, would it?”

He then proceeds to loudly chastise a number of well-known Filipino authors and intellectuals. ‘X’ lacks grace, ‘Y’ is arrogant. ‘Z’ is a feeble copyist of Bryant’s favourite American writer. I look nervously around in case one of these people happens to pass by. I wonder if Bryant is less a victim of his damnedest luck than of social ineptitude, especially in a culture where anger and confrontation are taboo.

I ask him why he doesn’t return to the US.

“A little money issue.” He points to his kit bag. “So you’ll buy one of my books?”

I make the excuse that I don’t have any cash on me.

He doesn’t seem to hear me. “Maybe you could hook me up with a publisher in your country? The publishers are real unfriendly here.”

A chubby Filipina in mirrorshades appears. She wears an embarrassed, spaced-out smile. “This is my girl,” says Bryant. “She’s a very talented photographer.” He takes out his phone and shows me a series of unbelievably clichéd island sunsets. “Perhaps you could help her get an exhibition?”

I tell him it’s not really my area.

“Damn,” Bryant sneers and scratches his beard.

I say goodbye before I become another victim of his damnedest luck.


Coop wanders the homestay he runs with his Balinese wife Ida. He is topless, a bypass scar leading from his chest to his bathtub belly. He natters in Aussie monotone, a cigarette pivoting in his mouth. “The thing about Candi Dasa, right, is we’ve got the best beach in the world ‘cept no one knows about it … Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall got married just up the road … My wife’s a bloody whizz in the kitchen, it’ll be just like your granny’s cooking back in England …”

Coop worked as a baggage handler for Qantas until a heart attack made him re-think everything. Wanting a new start, he flew to Bali and never came back.

In Australia he’d been a nobody. “It was hard for a bloke to get on,” he moans. “Too many immigrants taking all the jobs.” With no concern for hypocrisy, Coop built a successful business here in Bali, putting his “raconteur’s skills” (his description not mine) to use. He reminds me of Ronald Merrick, the colonial policeman in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet novels. Merrick felt his grammar school education and lack of connections impeded his career in Britain, so he moved to India where he found it easier to excel. Thousands of real-life expats would agree with him. As Sriskandarajah and Drew observe, ‘For some middle class families, living abroad is a social aspiration. The experience of foreign living and culture may be a way to redefine themselves in the social hierarchy.’

Like Merrick, Coop despises the indigenes. He has a particular problem with those taxi drivers who dare to ask him for a 12,000 Rupiah (about 90p) tip. He doesn’t seem to respect his wife much either: she is slaving away in the kitchen while he hangs out half-naked, smoking and swigging Bintang beer.

A creaky old man in a rugby shirt enters the homestay. “This is Clive,” says Coop. “He’s a Kiwi, but we’ll try not to hold that against him.”

Trailing behind Clive is a Balinese girl young enough to be his granddaughter. She is in fact his new wife. I don’t believe her claim to have children from a previous marriage. Clive has three grown-up sons of his own. They too have a penchant for the oriental lady.

“My eldest married a Japanese,” he says. “My second a Vietnamese. But my youngest, well, he’s been a disappointment to me; he married an Australian.” Coop tuts at the comeback. Clive winks.

Western men have long been enchanted by Asian women. In the 1880s, the Irish-Greek Japanophile Lafcadio Hearn wrote, “the most wonderful aesthetic products of Japan are not its ivories, nor its bronzes, nor its porcelains, nor its swords, nor any of its marvels in metal and lacquer – but its women.” Today, in Thai villages of 500 families, some two hundred women are married to American and European men. For many, love is now the holy grail of expatriation.

Candi Dasa is no exception, Coop assures me. He mentions a retired Dutchman who’s just moved into the area. “He’s bought the land, he’s built the house, now he’s looking for the girl. He’ll find one no worries, bloke like that.”

After Clive and his missus retire, Coop reveals a darker dimension to expat relationships. “That bloke you just met,” he says with the shamelessness of a gossip, “he had another Balinese chick before that one. Got her pregnant. One night they were staying here and she wouldn’t, you know, sleep with him. So he yelled at her, really upset her. Then he drove down to Kuta for a ‘takeaway.’ Know what he meant by that?”

I think I do. “What did you say to Clive?”

Coop shrugs. “Well what can you say? None of my business, mate.”

It dawns on me that Coop’s industry is a dirty one. The imperatives of hospitality have made him a coward. He’ll let someone behave like that so long as they’re a paying customer. I wonder if he’d react differently to a Balinese man doing exactly the same thing to his girlfriend. Perhaps not; business is colour blind.

Coop finishes his eighth bottle with a burp. I feel for his poor wife. He’s already had one major heart attack and he’ll have another if he carries on like this. Then Ida will be back on the scrapheap, waiting for another white sugar daddy.

Now slurring, Coop mocks a guest he suspects of being gay. I call it a night and go to my room. I realise I’m next door to Clive.

Ambrose Bierce’s wry definition of ‘exile’ could well apply to an expat like Coop or Clive: ‘One who serves his country by residing abroad, yet is not an ambassador.’ Australia and New Zealand are well-served by Coop and Clive residing 1,500 miles away. But by the same logic, I feel sorry for Bali.




The expats I interviewed were all fleeing some personal tragedy – failure, guilt, ill health, bereavement – as if the physical act of travel could elude their internal demons. Whether this is possible is an open question. Annisa was disappointed with her ancestral homeland and alienated from other expats. Clive, Coop and Bryant were surely doomed.

Meanwhile, Lily seemed to be coping best with the tragedies of exile. She’d embraced the host society and was curing her melancholy by helping others. With her sense of adventure and fondness for boats, she might well appreciate Mark Twain’s positive angle on expatriation: “So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”



Tragedies of Exile Part I

28 Aug
Tragedies of Exile: Candid Encounters with Expats
27 August, 2012


During my two years in Asia, some of the most intriguing people I met were expats. Some were genial and intelligent, others were obnoxious, but not one was ever dull. Settling down for brief periods in India, Malaysia, and other places, I became an expat myself. I experienced a weird kind of dislocation, a confusion about who I was and what I was doing. Despite my keenness to integrate, I had many fears and anxieties. Such feelings were new to me; I wanted to understand them better.

I decided to interview a number of expats about their attitudes, motives, and desires. I became fascinated not only by their personal stories, but with the wider phenomenon of expatriation itself. I found out that expats are defined as migrants from economically advanced countries and that, while there’s much debate about immigration to such countries, there is less focus on emigration from them. I was surprised to learn that six million Britons (10% of the total population) currently live outside the country, while 5% of Australians and 2% of Americans have moved overseas.

The more interviews I conducted, the more I realised that my troubles weren’t unique. An expat life seldom runs a smooth course.


I first meet Annisa at the University of Malaysia. She is performing an experimental dance routine drawing on African and Asian styles. She lurches around the stage as if possessed, her face pinched with terror. Afterwards, she sits down with me, exhausted.

Her beauty suggests she is younger than the “late 30s” she claims. She has caramel skin, sleek black hair and small elliptical eyes. These looks are typical of Cape Malays, she tells me, the descendents of Javanese slaves brought to South Africa by the Dutch. But while her ancestors were forcibly expatriated, Annisa has freely chosen to return to their country of origin five centuries later. She belongs to a genre of expat called “the returnee.” As Sriskandarajah and Drew observe in Brits Abroad, other returnees include British-Jamaicans who opt to go back to the Caribbean in later life. They are not always impressed with what they find. “It’s a foreign culture for us,” complains one man. “Now it is Americanised and strange.”

Is Annisa impressed with what she’s found? “It’s not how I imagined,” she sighs. “I was hoping for more gamelan music and fewer shopping malls.”

Does she spend time with other expats? “Apart from my English husband, not really.” She inverts Aesop’s adage: “Divided we stand, united we fall.” Fellow expats are “too inward-looking; they have little to do with the locals.” She has touched on a big theme: the problem of integration. In one school in Spain with a majority of British pupils, teachers protest the refusal of these Brits to learn Spanish. While living in Manila, a Filipino friend accused me of hiding in a gated community: a tower of rich outsiders guarded by natives poor enough to be sacrificed in an armed robbery or kidnap attempt. I pointed out to my friend that this was the only accommodation available to foreign workers like me; I hated it as much as she did.

However, some expats don’t feel welcomed to integrate. In Knowles and Harper’s study Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Landscapes, and Journeys, British teenager Jess complains that Hong Kongers won’t sit next to her on the bus. When she enters a clothes shop they giggle at her Western physique. Knowles and Harper link this hostility to the colonial past, when local coolies had to ask special permission to enter whites-only neighbourhoods such as Victoria Peak. “There is a whole other life here which is very different from ours,” Jess concludes miserably.

In contrast with Jess, Annisa has learned fluent Malay and is founding a theatre company here in Kuala Lumpur. I ask her why she chose the expat life. “I was a professional actress in South Africa for five years, but the work dried up. I thought I should travel and better myself as a writer and performer.”
Annisa belongs to a long tradition of creatives who have sought inspiration and ideas abroad. As Malcolm Bradbury puts it, “by virtue of his dedication, creative anguish, and distinctive perception, the artist exercises his freedom and his powers by existing in a displaced relationship to his national culture.” Bradbury goes on to examine the great American writers who moved to Europe, from Henry James to Washington Irving, Ezra Pound to T. S. Eliot, Henry Miller to William Burroughs. Many of them went to Paris and joined a United Nations of artists: Irish playwrights, Spanish filmmakers, German painters, and so on.

Has Annisa been an expat anywhere else? “I’ve lived in San Francisco, Jakarta, Mumbai, and Yeovil.” “Yeovil?” I wonder if I heard correctly. “Yes,” she laughs. “It’s where my husband’s from. We didn’t last long there.”


I sit with Lily in a peach-coloured bar that used to be a Portuguese villa. Her peroxide blonde hair and sequined dress recall a femme fatale from a film noir, except she may be too old for the part. We are waiting for a band to tune up.

I ask Lily how she came to live in Goa. She looks over at the band, tears filming her heavily shadowed eyes. I seem to have upset her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, catching a tear in a napkin. “It’s been a while since somebody asked me that question.” She composes herself and begins her story.

Lily used to be a “workaholic miser,” running old people’s homes in Auckland. When her 20-year-old son Doug died in a car crash, she stopped caring about her career, money, New Zealand, and a lot else besides. She moved to Australia and lived on a houseboat. She threw lavish parties for her neighbours, enjoying this “new feeling called generosity.” A typical party would start with steak and champagne for breakfast and end with skinny dipping in the Timor Sea.

Lily then lived on a houseboat in Thailand for two years before sailing on a cargo ship to Goa. She admits to “running away from something,” but doesn’t mention her son. Her latest act of generosity was to buy instruments for the band, which has just started playing.

“Doug loved music,” she shouts in my ear. “Really loved it.” For the first time this evening she smiles. Some other expats join us, kissing Lily on the cheek. She keeps smiling for the whole of the gig.

Read part two in next month’s issue of The Expat.
This article was written by Tom Sykes for The Expat magazine.

Source: The Expat August 2012

Excerpt from The Hitchers of Oz

22 Jun

The Most Lateral Digit

In 2007 I travelled to eight Asian countries, mostly by air, sometimes by coach and train, less frequently by sea and occasionally by the means of hitchhiking. Getting my thumb out usually resulted in taking my fate in my own hands. I enjoyed the ambiguity – who will pick me up? Where might I be dropped off? – and the freedom to bust out of the safe ‘n’ easy limits of modern tourism, what Guy Debord called ‘human circulation packaged for consumption … the opportunity to go and see what has been banalized’. All across Asia are outposts of the banal catering to Western tastes, colonies of the familiar in which you’ll find American fast food outlets, bars selling European beer, mock-bohemian hostels and – above all – the beach.

I could never spend too long on the beach, even though, as a creative writer, I liked its unreality, its suspension from the normal diktats of time, order and motion. The excess of heat and light distorts your perception of everything around you. You can feel like you’re in an invented world of isthmuses of blazing sand that reach into the lucid ocean through which the naked eye can see coral patterns of alien intricacy. There are newspapers and TVs on the beach but what they report seems so remote. A nuclear bomb could explode ten miles away, but its radiation wouldn’t leak into the hermetic bubble of the beach.

Other people seem unreal too. When you ask them about themselves, their answers seem contrived and implausible: a German whose parents own a huge porn shop in Hamburg, a UN peacekeeper on a weekend break, an undercover drugs agent for the Jakarta police who also happens to be a reflexology masseur.

As the sun sets, you find yourself sinking happy hour beers at a palm-shaded bar playing Jack Johnson. You’re living the cliché (or is it now a myth?) of postcards, TV holiday shows and what every Western traveler is told to want from a foreign trip.

The close proximity to bizarre animals can make you think you are roaming the Lost World or the Island of Dr Moreau. You wait for a six foot monitor lizard, essentially a mini-dinosaur, to cross the path that leads back to your hut where there’ll be a different critter to contend with each night: an audacious monkey trying to steal washing, a mysterious gold-backed spider – straight out of Poe – that takes hours of smothering with towels and insect repellent before it dies, cockroaches – those evolutionary strongarms, flying at your face like an apocalyptic beast – worms, frogs, birds of prey beating their wings against the frame of the window, and mosquitoes. Mosquitoes everywhere.

You lie in your sweaty bedclothes staring at the ineffectual fan on the ceiling, hoping its revolutions will hypnotize you to sleep. You reek of the science fictional smell of DEET that is all over your body to prevent bites. Bites that can give you malaria or dengue fever. Mosquitoes, the most dangerous animals in the world if you go by body count.

At around 4am, locals start burning great pyres of rubbish right outside your hut. Back West this is deemed so eco-unfriendly that it could only happen in a bad dream.

What further adds to that unreal feeling is that, on the beach, no-one has a job, is told what to do or has to abide by a routine. That is, of course, apart from the locals who all work extremely hard to maintain this ‘free space’ for the travelers who play roles like actors in a film. Every beach has its resident crackerjack who’s changed his name to mean ‘god of the wind’ or some such thing in the local language. Invariably he is from white middle-class origins, has dreadlocks and carries around a didgeridoo, even though he is unable to play it very well. He is holier than thou about the milieu – he knows every bar, fishing and diving spot, and everyone.

TS Eliot wrote ‘humankind cannot bear too much reality’, and I wonder if sometimes the opposite is true also. On one particular beach in Malaysia, I came to the decision that I’d borne too much unreality. So I hitchhiked out of there.

Taking his cue from Debord, Will Self makes a point in a Google Authors talk about the tyranny of modern transport, in which the traveler is oppressed by prearranged flight paths or train routes or boat courses.

First published in The Hitchers of Oz (2009)