Most people who frequent with me, at work or during play, will know I am a pretty casual and forgiving person; open and free about my points of view, ideas and opinions. My Nigeria MOPOL* policeman and guardian, God forgive me, I forgot his name always said, “My master is not very economical with his mouth”. Back then I was not sure what to make of it; him a devout Muslim, and always had fiery debates with Maurice my driver, an equally devout Christian; I had to prevent violent civil strife erupting between them in some godforsaken part of Nigeria. So, tonight, here from a quiet motel room in “The Kidman Wayside Inn”, I have a few confessions to make.
No, I am not gay or have not joined the Greens, but sadly and much to my own disappointment, I cannot sing. Not for the life of me. My father was gifted with a golden voice (as Leonard Cohen sings); he always encouraged us to sing, but I got some other talents, like serviette folding, or drying dishes, from the talent queue. I vividly recall during a primary school concert, we re-enacted the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. All the little kids, who did not get on of the divine roles** as either Joseph, Maria, the three Wise Men, the Inn keeper, the Angels or the donkey (it was a prestigious role, to play the donkey), sang in the choir. My three cousins, my brother, and I were all in that choir. One day, during practice, the dear old teacher Mrs Molly de Wet walked passed the Barnard cousins and stopped. She looked traumatised; with respect she said, “The boys who do not want to sing, do not have to sing” I became a palm tree, waving my leafy green arms in the wind next to the crib resting the Baby Jesus. It traumatised me for decades. As a consolation however, many years later, I am learning to play piano. Not very well, only just as a matter of fact I can dance with the ebony and ivory, much better than singing the praise of the Lord.
People with golden voices aside for the moment, I always admired people who can walk into a room, break into conversation with anyone, and minutes later, arms around the shoulder, chat like old friends. Since I live in Australia I really struggle to do that; I can happily talk to people I know, but with strange people, uh-oh… Fear grips my tongue, ties it in a knot, and makes words come out wrong. Riding long quiet stretches on the motorcycle today I dissected the possible reasons; It was either palm tree next to the Baby Jesus’ crib, or it has to do with my Japie*** accent and English being my second language. Many people simply do not understand me when I am sober. Combined with that, is my deep-seated fear of being rejected, so I will never ask strange people if I can take a photograph of them, even after a hearty discussion, and much pleasantness. A specific goal of this motorcycle safari was to address both these fears in one shot. Let my record of this journey be the judge.
Leaving Bathurst early on my way to Wagga Wagga allowed me time to consider the ideal spot of a relaxing breakfast or lunch while on safari. I always have these romantic ideas of stopping at a small cafe, with white chairs and colourful cushions under willow trees, a cute waitress, serving me small French croissants filled with vanilla cream; when accepting my payment throws her arms around my neck, asks me to steal her away on my magical journey; alas, I keep dreaming.
Riding south on the Olympic Highway is a pleasurable journey; plenty of small villages and towns for a stop, stretch the legs and my regular twenty push-ups next to the motorcycle, stunning the unfortunate locals. The best place to meet interesting people will always be the corner pub, or hotel. It will most certainly sport the name of the village, or be a Royal, Kings, or Railway Hotel, just like in Africa, where the colonial times are only remembered in the hotel names. Down a slight hill into Mandurama placed a curse on my thirst, there was only one place. The Royal Hotel, promising cold beers, hot meals, and POKIES. I stopped, put out the side stand, and walked in. A few regulars, all older men tired and run down after years of slog and disappointments, actively betted on horses and did not even look up. (I did not even know you get a horse and greyhound race betting vending machine in pubs and bars, connected to the Internet, on which you can place bets! An absolute bloody disgrace, but then, I do hate gambling. If Australia has a curse, it is not drink or “illegal maritime arrivals” as Minister Bob Carr and other Labor politicians now calls boat people, the curse is gambling, it is a cancer). Err sorry, my bitch for the day.
In The Royal Hotel Mandurama, the bar lady with pink hair, had black stripes put in for Christmas, just for fun, for a laugh, pours me a Coke Zero in a frosty glass filled with ice. The resident horse expert, a dwarf, sits in his special high chair, drinking beer and Baileys Irish Cream, fresh from a 500ml bottle. The barmaid laughs, says it is pint sized like the dwarf, a late Christmas gift from the other punters, “he is only a tiny guy, pint size”, and all laughed in a really nice manner. She tells me; she has only been at The Royal in Mandurama for a year; she move up from The Royal Hotel in Lyndhurst, when it closed down. She likes the new joint, it is jolly as she put it, and she has found a man here. Just before I could gather enough courage to ask if I can take a photograph of her, the dwarf fell from his chair, the Baileys’ kicked like a horse. The pink haired lady rushed around the bar counter; lifting the dwarf with great care and compassion; it suddenly struck me who the man she found was.
Lyndhurst, for those who care to study maps, is a mere 6km south from Mandurama on the way to Cowra. The Royal Hotel, still beaming some former glory is now being turned into a backpackers and holiday accommodation venture, where they will serve wood fired pizzas and Mexican foods in Cafe Royale, but apparently no bar so the bar lady left for a new life, 6km northwards. My presence in this three-surname town, daring to aim a camera at the Cafe Royale sparked frenzy under the residents. I swear I could hear curtains being ripped open, then closed, and within a few seconds the owner, with thick glasses and a Harley Davidson style moustache arrived. His well-used Isuzu UTE’s tray was filled with plumbing and carpenter gear, pieces of wood, copper piping and electrical tools.
He clearly meant business, friendly enough, and quite a talkative man in his mid sixties, with a severe nerve disorder. He reminded me of a taxi-driver with similar condition I once had in Kuala Lumpur; the owner of Cafe Royale lifted his shoulders, blinked twice, touched his left ear, then his nose (both with his left hand), pushed up his thick glasses, sniffed, then pulled the glasses down with his right hand, and repeated. Shoulders up, blink blink, left hand, left ear, nose, glasses up, right hand glasses down, shoulders down. He explained, his brother and him had a similar Royal Hotel in South Australia, shoulders up, blink blink, left hand, left ear, nose, glasses up, sniff sniff, right hand glasses down, shoulders down, and later one in Victoria, but the economy was bad, and they bought this one, after studying tourism trends. Shoulders up, blink blink, left hand, left ear, nose, glasses up, sniff sniff, right hand glasses down, shoulders down. He politely declined to have his photograph taken, he just does not trust this Gillard government, spies everywhere, and with the Internet and digital cameras, his image can be on the Prime Minister’s desk in seconds.
He invited me inside; it was quite a stately structure, with an amazing array of furniture, carpets, bar equipment, electrical fans of every conceivable form and function, tall ones, short ones, think stemmed ones, and fridges some stocked with food, others with cool drinks, humming away. I immediately liked the place; in contrast with the Royal Hotel in Mandurama, it had an ambiance, and some mystery of crooked deals, gold nuggets in tobacco satchels, feather clad prostitutes, and rough men drinking glasses of straight bourbon. He explained, shoulders up, blink blink, left hand, left ear, nose, sniff sniff, glasses up, right hand glasses down, shoulders down, this is all their goods and equipment, salvaged from their other Royal Hotel ventures, and some left-over stuff from the closure of this Royal Hotel. In the corner stood a white, upright piano, I walked over and opened the lid. The owner, shoulders up, blink blink, left hand, left ear, nose, sniff sniff, glasses up, right hand glasses down, shoulders down, said “not sure what to do with that, sell it? Do you play?” “Not much, I haven’t played in a few years.” My right hand’s fingers rolled over the black and white keys; it sounded all right to me. “Play something,” the man asked. Now what the hell would I play I panicked, stage fright! I remember the one tune I can play, an Afrikaans children’s folk song ‘Bobbejaan klim die berg’, translated ‘baboon climbs the mountain’. I started playing the tune with my right hand only, he, shoulders up, blink blink, left hand, left ear, nose, sniff sniff, glasses up, right hand glasses down, shoulders down, looked pleased. The piano was in quite a good nick, not even one key out of tune. He pushed a chair towards me; I sat down, played (not without a few false notes and errors, but it flowed), and sang along. The hall filled with the sound of ‘bobbejaan klim die berg, so haastig en so lastig’, translated something like ‘baboon climbs the mountain, in a hurry in a haste’. I played and sang as much of the song I could remember. He smiled, shoulders up, blink blink, left hand, left ear, nose, sniff sniff, glasses up, right hand glasses down, shoulders down, and say “It will stay right here then” and gave me an ice cold Solo from the fridge.
*MOPOL, short for “Mobile Police” is a paramilitary arm of the Nigerian Police force, also renting out their protection services to foreigners, business owners and VIP’s. Small advice is to always befriend your MOPOL, and gain his trust.
**The role of Jesus the Baby was never given to any kid, it was always a nice healthy looking baby doll, wrapped in a white blanket.
***Japie is the casual reference to Afrikaans speaking migrants to Australia.
(2 January 2013)