things about byron bay

Last weekend I went up to Byron Bay for another leg of the Travelling Film Festival. Byron is ten hours north of Sydney by car, but a skip and a hop if you’re flying and that’s what I did. It’s one of the most popular destinations in Australia, an alternative oasis famous for its music festivals and also for its otherworldly tropical beauty, amazing beaches (of course), and balmy climate. I was only there about 40 hours and really couldn’t form a judgment. But here are some thoughts and impressions.

Last tango — The trains to the airport were down on Saturday, and rather than catch a bus I decided to cab it. At Central Station the first taxi I saw zipped past where I was standing; without really thinking about it I jumped into the street and waved it down. When I got in, the driver apologized for missing me at first. I told him it was no problem; being from New York, I’m good at catching cabs. He laughed and said he was not surprised; he told me a story about another customer, an old lady in her 80s, who flagged him down with shocking vehemence, and it turned out she was a New Yorker.

We continued talking in an unforced way all the way to the airport. He was a charming and well-spoken older man from Hong Kong; his father was Irish and his mother Chinese. When he heard I’d been working for film festivals he seemed pleased; it turned out he was pretty savvy about films. He said he used to be a photographer and worked for various magazines. It’s always melancholy to hear a taxi driver talking about a former career like that. Could be me one day.

I randomly mentioned Midnight Cowboy in light of our conversation about New York taxis. I sort of gingerly danced around the fact that it’s about a gigolo, not knowing if that kind of thing would put him off or not. But then he asked if I’d seen Last Tango in Paris. He described visiting the building in Paris where it was filmed, and all the while I was somewhat amused to be discussing that film with a stranger. Then he asked if I’d seen Emmanuelle. Then 9 1/2 Weeks. I wasn’t sure where he was going with this. I countered with Eyes Wide Shut and tried to change the topic.

He told a story about how when he was a boy in Hong Kong, his father, who worked in theater, arranged an audition for him for a bit part in a Chinese movie. Grimly I wondered if it would turn out to be something X-rated. But the conclusion was that a young Bruce Lee got the part instead. He also showed me a wrinkled photo of him standing smiling with Muhammad Ali. I wondered if there was a secret connection tying Ali and Bruce Lee to Marlon Brando.

I shouldn’t make too much fun. He was a good guy, and I enjoyed talking to him. He might just want to tone it down a bit with the mature content.

Talking about the weather —  My flight landed at Ballina Airport on Saturday afternoon as the sun was getting low. I really enjoyed the shuttle bus ride from Ballina to my lodge just outside Byron Bay. The lush tropical landscape of the area (very different than that of Sydney) was pretty stunning at sundown. One leg of the ride ran along a height overlooking Byron Bay, immense and luminescent with the dark arms of the Cape and Tweed Heads embracing it in the dusk.

There were few other people on the shuttle, but one of them was a man who seemed to know the driver. I listened to the two of them talk the entire way. Both were about the same age, perhaps a few years short of retirement. They talked back in forth in a loud but cheerful and pleasantly rhythmic way. There’s something great about listening to people talk in a different dialect of your own language — especially if they happen to be older people who are less influenced by the media. You can understand most of what they say, but their unfamiliar cadences and tones are continually disarming. It’s a lot like listening to music.

They talked about the weather a good deal. That’s usually dismissed as small talk, but if you listen to someone who really knows something about weather it’s pretty fascinating. Both men had been farmers, or at least lived on farms, at different points in their lives, and they displayed a keen understanding of weather patterns. It was a pleasure to hear them trading expertise and anecdotes about southerlies, warm air rising, and fog so thick you could have walked on it. They went on to talk about a lot of other things, and I kept listening with interest. They had a way of sounding knowledgeable, whether the subject was local business, or cars, or the alternative music festivals of the area. I was impressed by a certain quality — I believe the old fashioned word for it is “wisdom.” I enjoyed what it indicated about the character of average Australians. As the shuttle bus rolled along through the tropical dusk, I felt a sense of satisfaction about living here.

In general I could probably listen to strangers talk all day. I’d like to get into writing conversations down and working them into stories or screenplays.

Slackness — I’m starting to realize that the service in Australia is going to be shit, and I should just get used to it. On Saturday night I went into town to have a beer and some dinner with my friend Merc, who had driven up from Glen Innes to hang out for a day. Merc is from Sydney, but has also lived in New York, and has his own perspectives on life in both places (which can be found at Postcards.21C, his blog). As we ordered our drinks and food, the poor quality of the service all around became a running joke. Again, no one was unfriendly or rude. But there’s this maddening tendency of waiters and bartenders to drop the ball in little ways, constantly. You’re standing alone at an empty bar, and the girl who’s working there just doesn’t seem to register you at all; she’s talking to a friend. When she finally comes around, there’s no smile or greeting. You order a local ale, and the tap is empty. She doesn’t explain or apologize, just leaves you hanging while she goes to look at it. She comes back and says it’s not going to be possible to have that kind of beer tonight. This is how it is everywhere you go.

As we drank our hard-earned beer we tried to analyze this nationwide epidemic of slackness. Don’t get me wrong; I think Aussies are as friendly, hardworking, and as sound as could be — as epitomized by my shuttle bus driver and his mate. But what is it when they get behind a counter? As I said, my Aussie wife thinks it’s because there’s no tipping here. I may start leaving cash lying around and see if it helps. But Merc reckons that deep down Aussies associate “good service” with “being subservient” — in other words it’s too much a reminder of colonial days — and will never really value it. So I should probably get it out of my head soon or I’ll go nuts.

By the time we got our check, waited fifteen minutes for the guy to come back, and had to take it up to the counter ourselves, we were laughing about it, so I’ll probably be OK. Anyway, my pizza was good, the beer was good, and the conversation was good. It was great to hang out and eat at an outdoor table on a balmy late-autumn evening in the tropics.

The most easterly, etc — The next morning Merc and I took a walk on Cape Byron, renowned as the most easterly point of the Australian mainland. In fact when you’re visiting, you get used to hearing this phrase all the time. “I’m going to Cape Byron tomorrow.” “Oh, great, you know it’s the most easterly point of the Australian mainland?” And indeed, when you get out to the Cape itself, there’s a sign saying, you guessed it, “The Most Easterly Point of the Australian Mainland.” Can we start abbreviating this as TMEPOTAM?

It had poured rain all morning, and the temperature had cooled considerably from the day before. But even with the overcast and the remaining patchy drizzle the Cape was duly spectacular. It’s quite a small and stubby cape compared to the epic glacial formations on America’s east coast, but its rugged heights were impressive — peering down at the sea a queasy distance below me, I realized it’s probably the highest height I’ve been on in Oz. The cape is built of some kind of rock besides New South Wales’ ubiquitous sandstone due to some very ancient volcanic activity in the area; the dark, rough, cracked stone seems to be perpetually crumbling into the sea. I marvelled at the electric aqua color of the water, which was unaffected by the overcast; it looked lit from within. There’s a beautiful chalk-white lighthouse dating from 1901 overlooking everything.

I enjoyed gazing out to sea from TMEPOTAM, amazed that there was no land at all between where I was standing and Chile, unless you accidentally blew off course a bit and bumped into Norfolk Island. Sadly none of the Cape’s famous whales were in sight. On the north side we had a terrific view of the Bay, a shallow, sandy curve stretching away for miles up to Tweed Heads. Twice we glimpsed a huge manta ray jumping out of the water not far from the Cape’s rocky beach. Not something you see every day.

OzyMex — Getting back to town, Merc spied a Mexican fast-food counter called OzyMex and almost jokingly suggested we try it. Just before I’d just been griping that there wasn’t any good Mexican food in Oz at all. With some arrogance I agreed to test my theory. But I could tell as soon as I stepped in that they knew what they were about. They had a bold, creative menu with all the right lingo (many Aussies wouldn’t know what a torta or a habañero is), and their house brand of hot sauce, Byron Bay Chilli Company, was prominently displayed on the counter. Next thing you know Merc’s talking to the owner, a bearded gentleman behind the counter, and of course it turns out he’s American, from southern California. So the jury’s still out on Mexican food in Australia, made by Australians anyway. But the guy was really friendly, told us the story of his business, had us try the sauce (fantastic), informed us that one of his flavors had won an international salsa award in Santa Fe, and in general was a great host without leaving the counter. (I wish he could train all of the town’s bartenders.) My quesadilla and nachos were awesome, and I bought two bottles of the the sauce and a chocolate chilli brownie. I’ll definitely be going back to this place.

Bohemian combo — I had a bit of a wander-around and did some shopping. As I said, Byron was formerly known as a hippie enclave; but it has become such a tourist destination that it’s gone quite upscale, and the shopping has become very serious indeed. The main drag and several side streets are clustered with shops and boutiques, with restaurants, bistros, and music clubs to match. There are some legendary outdoor markets in the area too. I think a lot of people come here mainly for the shopping. There’s still a strong alternative flair here; yuppies and tourists mill about shoulder-to-shoulder with hippies, surfers, skaters, punks and other feral types. Rather than thinking of it as gentrified or sold out, in fact I’ve always liked this kind of upmarket/bohemian combo: it tends to give a neighborhood a lot of variety and character and make it feel like anything goes, anyone is welcome, and you can get anything you want from independent music to expensive wine.

In one shop called Stoked (of course), I picked out a really cool, beautifully custom-designed T-shirt from a label called RVCA; when I asked the woman at the shop if the company was local, she told me it was American. Well I’ll be damned. Hadn’t heard of it before; what do I know about cool labels? Anyway, it turns out the company has a really interesting business plan involving artist collaborations; I’ll be keeping an eye out for their stuff now that I’m onto it.

The films — I saw two French films on Saturday and Sunday nights: Korkoro (Tony Gatlif, 2009) and A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009). Both address marginalized communities in France, but that’s the end of what they have in common. Korkoro is the story of a band of gypsies struggling to adapt their lifestyle to the changes wrought by World War II in occupied France. It’s by turns freewheeling and very grim, with dreamlike moments. Traditional gypsy music in modern arrangements forms a strong element of the soundtrack. (Director Gatlif is a musician himself.) I valued the film but did not love it; its tone jumps around a lot, perhaps intentionally, but that didn’t work for me; and it kept focusing on the characters I cared least about. But the production is rich, the music great, and I’ve never seen a more intimate portrait of these near-mythical outsiders, who lost 25% of their world population in the Holocaust. It made me want to read more about them.

A Prophet ended the festival on a grim note, as Sarah (in her last hurrah as TFF honcho) admitted in her intro. It’s the character study of a young Algerian in prison and the desperate means he takes to survive in a corrupt world ruled by gangsters. Audiard takes the Scorcese-influenced material and plunges into darkness, showing us a brutal world with no morals as we know them and little hope. Yes, these are clichés of gangster films, but Audiard has a way of making them raw and painful. I can see why the film has won awards left and right; in addition to the compelling plot and the jaw-dropping performance by Tahar Rahim, the visual design is masterful. Audiard paints a grimy, suffocating institutional hell with little incandescent light or color; and almost cruelly scatters a few achingly beautiful dream sequences as relief. Running through the film is a fascinating, subtle thread of Islamic mysticism, offering a flickering hint of a way of life outside the abuse and bloodshed. This is not a film to enjoy, but the skill and dark vision with which it’s made are undeniable.

What else?

Amazed by a clear night sky filled with constellations unfamiliar to me.

Saw Paul Hogan’s house. I think.

Watched two guys surf a wave in a sea kayak for a really long way, a couple of hundred yards from the end of the Cape right into the Bay, and resolved to try that at some point.

Had a great dinner with Sarah of the TFF and her mates.

Saw my first sugar cane fields.

Will definitely come back and stay longer next time.

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