After months of travelling in Egypt followed by India, Anya and I flew from Mumbai to Adelaide.
Arriving at Adelaide International Airport early on a Sunday morning, we caught the bus into the city centre and then got on a train from Adelaide central station to Seaford, a suburb on the coast 35 kilometres south of the city.
The trip took an hour – it stopped at every station on the way.
The train was new, high tech. The entire rail system had been recently rebuilt and electrified. In the inner city areas, the old English stations, constructed at the same time as the Raj were constructing similar railway stations all over India, had been renovated or entirely rebuilt.
Inside the train, everything was so clean, so modern. The seats were covered in modern fabric. Most of them were empty. There were only a few people in our carriage probably recovering from a long night of drinking (and marihuana or meth).
I found myself was wrestling with culture shock…..but this was my country wasn’t it? Leastways the country I’d been born in and where I’d spent most of childhood and youth….yet I found myself in a place which now seemed like a foreign land…………..
Where was I?
Outside the window there were streets lined with modern houses.
There was no trash, no plastic bags, no stray dogs or wandering cows.
No noise. No roads seething with traffic. No stifling pollution.
Everything was ordered, clean.
Where were the people?
People cramming the sidewalks and yelling. Cairo and Port Said and Mumbai and ….
The whole place seemed as it been abandoned.
Suburbs, streets and houses passed by.
On the roads there were very few cars and none of them were blowing their horns.
We got out at the Seaford station and waited for the bus.
It was a fine autumn day, sunny with a light breeze. The temperature was around 20 degrees; freezing after Egypt and India. The sky seemed limitless, another great emptiness above a big empty land. The air was so clear, so clean.
Clean air, few people – it was incredible. It was weird.
There were six people on the bus including us. The driver was an Indian. I wondered what went through his mind driving a bus with no passengers in a place with so few people and such little traffic in comparison with India. At a pedestrian crossing the lights changed and the cars stopped. I watched people cross the road. It was safe to cross the road. Pedestrians had rights! There were rules, laws, habits and people stuck to them.
There were more miracles awaiting us in our little house, an extremely modest dwelling by contemporary Australian standards. You could drink water from the tap. Turn the ‘hot’ tap on in the shower and hot water came out of the shower head.
It was just plain bizarre.
A good 4 days passed before I felt like I was back to ”normal’.
But the culture shock continued unabated. I was fighting to adjust. In my suburban backyard, there were high trees and the sound of the ocean mingled with the magnificent lyrical fluting of the magpie, the surrealistic cries of the galahs, the strange twittering of the willy-wagtail and the outrageous squawking of the corellas. On walks along the beach with Anya, I marvelled at the clean sand under my feet; the water was clear and blue. Seagulls wheeled and cried. It was possible in quiet moments to visualise a land which until not so long ago had been inhabited by the indigenous Kaurna people.
Days later I wrote out a list of the miracles which defined the border line between the West and the Rest, the miracles which we in the West took for granted. On the list was: democracy, freedom of thought and speech, political stability, low crime, low corruption, an honest and non-coercive police force, outstanding health services, clean air and water; modern supermarkets, efficient public transport systems, parks and reserves, walking trails and bike tracks…. none of these things were measured in terms of economic growth. They were quality of life issues but in so many ways they were starker, more dramatic than anything which per capita GDP could measure.
No wonder that millions of people living in non-western countries wanted to come and live in the West. No wonder that they were prepared to undergo just about any sacrifice to get there. You only had to see the pollution in a big city in India or China – or experience the oppression of a country like Belarus – to appreciate why even millionaires didn’t want to stay there.
Sometimes I wondered about at what point I would lose the desire to go somewhere else, put the restlessness behind me. In Egypt, some Dutch people we were travelling with on a river boat had told us:
‘You can’t keep travelling forever you know, sooner or later, especially as you get older, you’ve got to settle down somewhere, be it Europe or Australia…’
One morning, after a yet another long sleep, a thought suddenly occurred to me: We were living in paradise but how long would we stay here?
I knew it wouldn’t be too long before Anya began checking flights and destinations. She was my guarantee that we would always travel, always be moving….and that this place, paradise on earth, was another stop on the way, another station, and that we were eternal passengers.
Age was irrelevant. We would get truly old the day we gave up travelling, always moving.
Then life would have no reason anyway.
Yes, I recovered from the culture shock of being at home at the same time, realising that home was not home at all, it was just another stop along the way……
We were waiting.
To be back there, it might be anywhere in the world…where we could experience the feeling of being …at home …..