Once every so often, usually all three years, I am treated to an extraordinary spectacle. To this, I am not an observer; on the contrary, I am its instigator and chief participant. It starts as an apparition, a line far off on the horizon. Then, it grows and turns into a tidal-wave of majestic size, moving along with lightening speed; due to its predictability, its surely not a tsunami, and it allows me to entertain each and every time again the illusion that I can brace myself for its impact. When it hits the shoreline of my little island; it easily breaches all defences, clearing away all the clutter that has been piling up around me for years before washing me away into the turbulent seas of life. Confronting, no, reliving parts of my own past, each time from a different vantage-point.
So, forgive me when I am not talking about the Australian elections on this Occasion. The task I have set for myself is much wider in scope. When I refer to my golden years, I am not just pointing to a period in my life that was the happiest and most rewarding, but I am also speaking about the most formative years; years I have lived in the United Kingdom and in which I have travelled extensively. When, in the following paragraphs, popular buzzwords such as travelling and backpacking are mentioned, I am not using these words in the way well polished brochures and travel guides are doing. Not travelling as a business for the aspiring middle classes is what I want to write about here; rather, it’s the impulse to amerce yourself in a different culture; the desire to meet, observe and, where ever possible, understand local customs. in essence, imperfect as it was, it has been my overall objective to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the social fabric keeping societies together. I say imperfect because, fairly frequently, I believe I failed in this respect. Sometimes, though, travelling and living abroad for so many years led me to unexpected conclusions. Understanding travelling, backpacking and my own life abroad as a means by which to truly learn more about the inner workings of faraway places has its natural limits, constrains which were largely due to insufficient resources. Remember that I was a relatively poor traveller. If travelling truly is meant to be educational, then, you have to do it right. Fairly often, I met travellers who had turned the business into a sort of competitive sport, trying to show off by visiting as many places as possible in as little time as manageable. These are the sort of people who return home and have the compulsive need to tell everybody listening that they have ‘seen’ the world. Before taking you further along, I felt it necessary to make this observation. My stays have always been fairly extended ones, but, because of this, they never lacked intensity.
Committing my thoughts to paper or entering them into a digital device is not superfluous; if nothing else, writing has almost therapeutical value for me, and composing this piece has prompted me to explore a few aspects of myself I have not given as much attention to as I should have done. What is it, I keep wondering, that has made me take an interest in, say , disreputable places? Whilst London, Cape-town, Durban and Sydney are hardly disreputable as such, they all have their darker sites, and this is what I want to talk about here. Perhaps, my own dislike for a conventional Bourgeois lifestyle has strengthened my affinity for shady neighbourhoods, or maybe some of it had more to do with chance; since, if you live or backpack on a tight budget, these locations are pretty save bets for cheap accommodation. Be that as it may, trying to postpone any conventional existence has always held great appeal for me, and I managed to do so for quite some time. Though, eventually, I too had to settle for a more mainstream way of life, even if some of my rebellious thoughts still impact certain decisions I make nowadays. It became pretty obvious getting older that, if only for mere survival, you have to compromise with the society you live in. There are certain institutions I still reject with great determination, such as marriage and family. Should I ever unexpectedly become wealthier than I am now, I would never buy a house, a car or invest in property. I would return to what I believe is my calling to this day, being a travelling reporter. Choosing the word reporter and not journalist is meant to be suggestive in this context because, for me, the two are very different professions. Unlike many journalists today, the true reporter in any traditional sense has to be out in the field, work without the imposition of overly demanding deadlines and must be allowed to explore, research and think long and hard before submitting a piece. Surely, there are probably still a few reporters who enjoy such luxuries, but, if we are honest, true reporting is a dying trade.
Our first point of call is the London borough of Hackney. But, first things first. I commenced my British university education at Queen Mary (University of London) in September 2000, and like most other international students I preferred the safety and familiarity of university-related institutions. Put differently, at the time I lacked the confidence to venture out too much, still struggling with the finites of the English language and the necessary cultural adjustments. As it turned out, these challenges I met so easily and quickly that I already felt so attached to the city and country after only a short while that spending my summer-brake back in Germany was out of the question. Deep down, I had already decided that I didn’t just intend to complete my degree in London, but would do whatever necessary to live my life there. The latter turned out to be an illusion, but this is of no importance in this story. Much more significant is to remind readers that in the UK, regular students were not allowed to stay in university accommodation throughout the long summer-vacation. Returning to Germany was out of the question as I had already cut the apple-strings for good. After 9 months in London, there was no turning back anymore, and, in any case, where else was I supposed to go? My worries about not being able to stay were mitigated by one of my great friends at the time who happened also to be my campus support worker. He invited me to join him in his flat-share in Hackney for the first few days, a place we all nicknamed affectionately the flat above. Throughout my stay in Hackney, even after having successfully secured accommodation close by, the flat above would be a magnet pulling me back in. Within a matter of days I was introduced to a completely new group of people whom I would never have been exposed to had I not taken up my friend’s offer. If I still had any doubts as to living my new life and realising its full potential, these doubts were washed away for good, and a golden summer began; even today, almost 18 years after these events took place, this golden summer of 2001 has lost nothing of its magic. Most of us recognise the beauty of things only belatedly, long after events have played themselves out, but this was not the case in summer 2001. Finding my own flat-share in Hackney, being introduced to unfamiliar characters and enjoying a well-developed community spirit was so unexpected and revealing that I recognised the summer right away for how it turned out to be, golden and magical. I would live in Hackney for 10 months, and life would never be as complete as it felt during this short but intense time. Never again would happiness truly return, and never again would I sit in a place like the flat above, engaging with aspiring artists and workingmen alike and feel such a sense of completeness, no, gratitude even. Indeed, even though Hackney’s social fabric had always been fraying at the edges, it was the place where the aspiring artist and the workingman still occasionally mingled. Signs of transformation toward a more Bourgeois makeup of the borough were already visible, but I came at a time when getting a feel of the old Hackney was still possible. Engaging with many aspiring artists gave me great pleasure, since for us wannabe revolutionaries, sharing and expressing our disdain for the conventional norms and the Bourgeois lifestyle, or at least what we saw as such, was something we all had in common back then. Sadly, like is the case with most magical performances, Hackney was at least partly an illusion. Not one friendship has survived over the decades, and most of my fellow revolutionaries have settled for the existence we so vigorously opposed. Perhaps it is the institution of marriage and the constraints of family life that tamed the spirit of many. The micro-family is I believe the institution that ensures that unequal power-relations are passed on throughout the generations, and realising that has made me speculate as to why so many are prepared to choose this mental prison rather than pursuing different means of living together. In my view, families are essentially inherently unequal, in that, in one form or another, some men even today understand the act of marriage as property acquisition; thus, the family is relatively useful for men to perpetuate their privileged status in society, but it has always puzzled me that so many women buy into the family mythology. In fairness to those I am writing about, it must be acknowledged that most of them would dismiss my position out of hand, and would tell me that I am using political implications as a convenient scapegoat for not being prepared to assume the duties that managing a family entails. Now, it is true that I have not grown up in a traditional family, and this might colour my own perceptions of this institution, but I have noticed again and again how close erstwhile friends change once they embrace family life; in fact, I have known so many productive people over the years who, shortly after marriage, turned into inward-looking creatures, easily satisfied by the allure of house, car and a growing, well-managed bank-account. Therefore, I maintain to this day that the family, rather than the modern welfare state for example, is what ensures the continued survival of capitalist societies. In this at least, I am not opposed to being called a disciple of Marx. Very accurately, I think, he recognised that the Western micro-family, when considered as an economic and political institution, is one of the most important mechanisms by which capitalist economies tame the masses and ensure the adherence to values underlining and legitimising its economic model of exploitation. The idea of committing to one partner for life is also alien to me, and I honestly cannot grasp its appeal. But, for the most part, it was the family, understood as an economic and political microcosm of society in general, and its underlying values that rendered many friendships dormant, if not to say destroyed them. Though, this is not the dark side of Hackney I really wanted to talk about.
Like all places defying conventions, Hackney had a terrible reputation for being one of the most dangerous, crime-infested neighbourhoods in the whole of the UK. This reputation was not without merit, and, shortly before moving there, I came across a report on the BBC in which much was made of Hackney’s exuberant crime-rate. The biggest problem, so the report argued, was drug-related criminal activity, leading to gang warfare on the streets, occasional shootings, and plenty of stabbings. For the average resident, it seemed that muggings were commonplace in the vicinity. Conveying the news of my imminent move to this part of London, many of my friends and acquaintances on campus, and there were quite a few at the time, shook their heads in utter disbelief and dismay, imploring me to rethink my decision. Even battle-hardened kids who had grown up in immigrant families and loved the east end as such didn’t quite comprehend what had gotten into me. At this stage of preparation, changing my mind was out of the question, and I suppose my own personal pride would have prevented me from doing so anyway. In either case, my only brush with criminality in Hackney was a bus mugging I became an involuntary wetness to. All I remember almost two decades later is that a bunch of teenagers stormed the bus I was riding on one particular evening and made off with the day’s earnings. There was a moment of heightened tension when, after the youth gang stormed the bus, the driver decided to lock the doors of the vehicle intending to call the police. One of the muggers told the driver in no uncertain terms that he had a knife with him, suggesting in his demeanour that he would have no second thoughts using it. I heard this because, as so many times before, I was seated at the front right behind the driver. More due to necessity than anything else, I used the Hackney bus-system fairly frequently, and I need to stress that this was a one of incident as far as I was concerned. Sensibly I suppose, the driver surrendered the money to the gang, and they were gone as quickly as they had arrived, cheering and howling triumphantly as they made their hurried exit. Cutting through the red-tape took some time, and, somewhat puzzling for me, it took the police quite awhile to arrive on the scene, questioning the driver and various passengers about what had just transpired. In a way, it is a twisted fetish of mine, but my thoughts were all with those youngsters; still harbouring the dream and ambition of becoming a reporter one day, I saw so much potential in imagining myself to be able to convey how and what our world looks like to those kids, having to prove their worth by mugging a bus on Hackney’s roads. For them I suppose it was the first step into a proper career as street criminals; even back then, I was not naive enough to believe that they would likely turn out to be productive members of mainstream society one day. In any professional sense, my focus as a reporter would have been to write about these kids. At least, their fate was so much more reflective of our modern ills than trying to earn points by hobnobbing with the young media startups frequenting Highgate and Muswell Hill. The final year of university life I spent in the northwest of the city, and this area would hold no appeal for me whatsoever.
If our DNA encodes an early warning system alerting us to present dangers, it would set off my alarm bells only once. Let me put it slightly differently: If there is truth in the saying that the gods laugh about our plans, my god surely must have laughed about me very loudly indeed. My trip to South Africa would confront me at least once with levels of anxiety and terror difficult to record in mere words. I am saying this despite the fact that, in broader terms, the trip to the rainbow nation was successful in so many other ways. But, the terror I experienced that one night in the city of Durban has stuck with me to this day, and if I didn’t mention this part of the story, the picture I am trying to paint for you (the reader) would not be complete. So, then, let us visit Durban next.
South Africa has a well-earned reputation for high levels of crime, and serious criminality at that, violent and unforgiving. Human life didn’t count much for the drug-lords or the protégées of the sex industry. Having arrived in the city of Cape-town first, I settled in Sea Point, another district with a more than questionable reputation. Yet, I thought I had been extremely sensible in preparing for my trip. A friend of mine from Zambia who had lived in South Africa as well had even given me her money-belt to ensure I could store my cash away from prying eyes. It was also clear to me that, whilst being there, I would not walk the streets by myself; affording mini-caps was not very expensive using British Pounds. Plenty of visits I had booked online in advance, and on my own personal inference, I had even secured a visit to a school for the blind located outside the city. These visits worked out well, but even the best security arrangements cannot always prepare you for the unexpected. I was still roaming the country pretty freely, and when true evil puts in an appearance, you never seem to be quite ready for the encounter. The talk of my hostel in Cape-town was a shooting that had occurred just a few weeks prior to my arrival and concerned a strip club just a few blocks away from us. There was no reason to be overly concerned at this stage, since I was familiar with South African politics and was not at all surprised to hear about such happenings. That this particular shooting happened so close by was registering, of course, but it was nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence. How ignorant many backpackers were regarding South African history and its politics was another issue that made me question the saying that travelling is educational. I am sorry to say that travelling in itself does not automatically make a stupid person brighter. Mere travelling is never enough to understand or appreciate a place. Some people may not want to consider this, but widening the educational horizon always requires doing your homework, and a large part of doing such homework demands reading and researching. No, in my estimation, many backpackers did probably return as ignorant of South Africa as they had been all along. Travelling, for what it is worth, can be one accompanying educational discipline, but it doesn’t have to be, and I sadly believe that for many fashionable travellers in our days, education is not necessarily advanced by them going abroad. Today, posting the newest photo on Instagram defines the travelling experience to a large degree, leaving no time or space for serious reflection on the country they are visiting. Don’t forget that exploring and researching a place always involves critical self-analysis, and, even if this happens mostly unconsciously, it is a taxing exercise and therefore not very popular. Sorry for shattering some illusions and preconceived notions here, but, no, travelling in itself mustn’t be educational at all. It can be so, but only if it is part of a whole critical approach to life itself.
I arrived in Durban after having spent more than two and a-half days on the road. The bus-ride from Cape-town to Durban turned out to be the longest journey of my life, and it was with a sense of complete and utter exhaustion that I settled into the place called Banana Backpackers. Until this time I believed I had developed and honed the right skills and instincts to recognise the feel of a place quickly. Indeed, something seemed off-kilter right from the first moment I set foot in this backpacker location. Despite the tourist season in full swing, the place seemed completely deserted, and there was something else bothering me early on, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on it yet. Shortly after settling in, I was ready to go on a first exploratory mission; I was ready for a drink out on the patio. I remember three tough-talking people there, and not having any other choice, I did what I do best, turning inward and becoming a silent observer of the situation. Apparently, there was one towering, domineering figure running the show. He was a man who spoke English with a heavy Afrikaans accent. This man will accompany us throughout this story, and I will refer to him from now on simply as the General; why I have chosen to do so will become evident in just a moment. The General was involved in a conversation with two other men, both of them speaking English with a heavy Russian accent. I learned that the two men were members of a UN peacekeeping force in Congo. Both men bragged openly about raping local women in the bush, and this supposed proof of their unrivalled and superior manliness amused and impressed the General. At first I thought I had misheard, but then it hit me with full force. I realised what was so off about this place. There were no women around. Seriously, throughout my thankfully brief stay there, I think I haven’t come across one single woman in this undeserving location. Not being able to keep up pretences for long, I made my first mistake that evening: engaging the General. Breaking the ice with people came natural to me back then. But talking to the General was different. He was interested in learning all about me, and I saw no harm in volunteering as much about myself as possible. If you now interject and say that I should have known better having overheard their conversation… Yes, you are absolutely right. But, on this occasion, I had already started to let down my guard, and I was not in the slightest prepared for what was to follow later. The General, so it seemed, developed an unhealthy obsession with me. I became the focus of his attention from that very moment on, and he told me that he would take me out the next day, showing me all Durban has to offer, making sure I would have an experience I never forget. Perhaps it was his tone, maybe it was his choosing of words. My attempts to start putting some distance between the General and his newest potential recruit were feeble; you never disobey the General, and since there were no other people around, I had no choice but to submit to his orders. The next day, he proclaimed self-assuredly, would be my induction day into his little regiment, and there was no further argument to be had. I was only allowed to return to my dorm after he had decided to retire for the night; as to where he went I had no clue. All the General had told me was that he was living locally.
As expected, the General was on time and as good as his word. He was ready for a prolonged march into the field. I had no plans for the day. My visit to a Zulu village, which I had booked in advance, was scheduled for the next day. Thus, I had no persuasive reason to defy my commander in chief. What had been the promise to explore Durban turned out to be a day mostly spent at bars on the beach drinking. Drinking, at least as far as the General was concerned, doesn’t quite cut it. In fact, never in my life have I met a man who could take such quantities of alcohol without showing the slightest signs of getting drunk. He drank without interruption, even though the heat on the beach was stifling. So, I started to learn a few things about my new master; for instance that he used to be a proud soldier in the apartheid era, making his career in the South African Defence Forces, and that he had no time for the new country he was now forced to live in. Delivering plenty of racist diatribes, the true reason for his drinking surfaced more and more. He wouldn’t get drunk, but the pain of having lost power, status and influence showed, and I kept wondering, observing the man more closely, how many quantities of alcohol it would take to alleviate his suffering. Didn’t he know that attempting to turn back the clock almost always turns out to be a pointless and self-destructive exercise? How benign is evil? With a man like the General sitting across the table, you keep thinking about the various forms in which evil manifests itself and the many guises in which true evil comes. Was the General a man bereft of any humanity I kept thinking as he lectured. This riddle I never solved. The man didn’t like me I think, but his often professed interest in my life and background was genuine I must admit. For myself, I found him just intimidating and had stopped trying to keep up with his abnormal boozing pretty early on, knowing full well that my day would be over long before the evening, and this particular evening was important for the General, having demanded of me to accompany him to his favourite hangout place. “You will have plenty of fun there.” He told me. When a man like him who never accepted the loss of power, now channeling his anger and frustration into even more shady enterprises, makes a fuzz about taking you along to his most cherished spot and brags about introducing you to one of his best friends, caution is in order. What could I do though? There was nobody else around to help. As he seemed to have intended all along, I was at his mercy. It is time to introduce you to another place in this story; I call this place Hell. In this place, I would come face to face with Lucifer. As I learned quickly, he was the owner of the place.
Now, if it is Lucifer’s duty to contain the demons in Hell, this Lucifer I encountered was negligent in this respect. In fact, Lucifer unfettered them, giving them free reign, and their power wasn’t lost on me either. The place I call Hell was hidden away and not open to the public. It was an illustrious gathering of various dignitaries ruling the underworld of Durban. First, there was Lucifer, the owner of this strip-club, whorehouse or whatever you want to call it. My worst nightmare was about to begin. The sense of dread and foreboding had not let go throughout the day, and once the General and I had walked through the gates of Hell, it mounted quickly, turning into something much more threatening and dangerous. What struck me right-away was that here, in Hell, the General was nothing more than a greatly appreciated guest. Ruling the barracks was one thing, but down here Lucifer was firmly in control. If not the General, I realised, it would be Lucifer causing me trouble that night, and Lucifer was a dangerous man. Once the General had accompanied me inside, and the rest of Durban’s high society had joined us, Lucifer gave the order to close the gates of hell, and I mean this literally. The doors throughout the entire building were locked and sealed, as well as the windows being barricaded. “We don’t want to have trouble with the police!” He snapped. And so, the diabolical dance got underway. There would be no way out of this place, and leaving hell I knew would come at a price, hence all my thoughts were focused on how I could avoid paying. The price was too high for me. What works in London or Sydney surely wouldn’t work in Durban. The idea that I could get away with making nice and friendly conversation with the owner and his sex slaves without having to join in the game was a fanciful phantasy I was dispossessed of quickly. These Sex workers, surely on Lucifer’s behest, were persistent, unrelenting and left no room for second thoughts. They had no problem approaching me, tempting me, pressurising me and, yes, eventually even becoming more and more intimidating. There was absolutely no way that, in such abusive surroundings, I could take up any of them on their flirtations. Even conceiving the strongest of physical desires wouldn’t tempt a man to accede to Lucifer’s wishes, I kept trying to tell myself. On that count, I was mistaken again. Most guests were genuinely enjoying themselves, and many gentlemen were soon heading upstairs. The two Russian speaking men whom I had encountered the previous day on the patio hanging out with the General had also come; they had the time of their lives in Hell it seemed. As the evening progressed, and it became apparent to Lucifer and the General that I was spoiling their party by not allowing one of the girls to take me upstairs, the atmosphere slowly turned hostile. At some point, the General approached me angrily and told me that Lucifer is starting to get very upset because of my behaviour. “What’s wrong with you? After all I have done for you today; are you a free-rider or something?” And then, the inevitable happened. Lucifer himself took an interest in me, and he had no time for losers and spoilers. He told me that the General and he himself had chosen the right girl for me. If I didn’t want any trouble that night, I would have to play along from now on. The girl came, and we went outside. She started caressing me, trying her best to make it easier for me to accept her invitation. She even inquired as to my sexual orientation. “Are you gay or something?” If I had lied by telling this woman that I was, it is still doubtful if they would have stopped bothering me. Lucifer I suppose had boys on offer too. In places like London or Sydney more than 6 months later, saying that I was perfectly fine enjoying the evening having a few drinks at the bar would have done the trick. Lucifer was an unforgiving master, and his slaves had to deliver the goods. It is the nature of abusive relationships that the abused must be given something which rationalises the abuse. Doing so reduces the need for overt coercion. Many of those girls trying to hit on me that night truly seemed to define their self-worth by how many customers they took upstairs. Due to a lack of education and widespread drug addiction, prostitution seemed to have been a lucrative business. Explaining to this woman that her master is a gangster was also out of the question. Whatever I would or could have said, it would have mattered to no one; in Hell, you don’t argue. Down there, you play along, serve Lucifer’s interests and take the punishment. I don’t know how many minutes we stood in the backyard of this place, and after all the doors and windows pointing to the street had been locked, I was glad to learn that the place still had some connection to the outside world. Eventually, the woman had enough of me. She told me that, since I would not take her up on her offer, I would at least have to try out a highly popular drug down there. “We call it Durban Poison.” She explained to me. I felt so out of place, so frightened of Lucifer and his intimidating attempts to force me into sexual intercourse that I couldn’t bring myself to reject this one too. Smoking the occasional joint was nothing new. I had done so in Hackney plenty of times; I believe even now that Cannabis, if used properly and in a pleasant setting, can enhance creativity and help to remain focused. Doing her the favor would perhaps mollify Lucifer’s anger somewhat; I was terribly afraid of this man by now. The whole atmosphere, this blatant abuse of women, it all was a situation I was ill-prepared for. My otherwise sound instincts were of no use in hell. There was no compass, no map and no other guiding system which could help me to chart a way forward and help me handle this situation. I realised at this moment, perhaps too late, that, for the first time in my life, I had walked into a terrible trap. I was completely and utterly at the mercy of genuine, maybe even trigger-happy, hardcore criminals. How much danger I was truly in I shall never know, since I am sure my mind had already started taking things very far. As to how I felt, however, it was of no consequence. My instincts had started taking over; I felt that I was in real, genuine danger. Complicating matters for me was my inability to seek help anywhere. There was nobody I could talk to or trust, neither inside nor outside this place. Being locked away increased my panic greatly; now for the first and only time in my life, terror had taken over. Even flying rockets in Tel Aviv or potential suicide bombings could not match that feeling which had now taken firmly posession of my body and soul. A noose had been put around my neck, and I feared it would tighten even further throughout the night. Perhaps, taking up the woman on some Durban Poison was a sort of consolation price, a means by which to loosen the grip terror and fear now had on me. Another costly mistake, and I must say I had made plenty by then. I am not sure how many drags I had, probably only one or two before the world around me began to collapse, and my grip on reality dissolved into nothingness. The woman who had tried so hard on Lucifer’s behalf to make my evening worthwhile had dropped her charade. “Sweet dreams” she said bitterly, and then I collapsed into my chair, and my mind started to produce a horror-show unrivalled in intensity to this day. A door to a completely unfamiliar place opened right there in-front of me.
My trial had been convened hastily and in earnest. Its location was unknown to me, but my mind kept imagining this place to be somewhere high up in the heavens; a for our senses unrecognisable power presided over the court proceedings. The room was packed. I recognised plenty of familiar faces; in fact, after looking around in utter bewilderment, it hit me at last; Without exception, they were all known to me. Everyone I had ever met in my life had come, and as the proceedings got underway, it was revealed that they were not there to witness my trial as I had initially assumed; they were the jury itself. There were no witnesses to be found. Since this strange power controlling the proceedings wouldn’t or couldn’t show itself to me, the jury would also deliver the verdict. Everyone I had ever met in my life to this point stepped forward, delivering the same, uncompromising damning indictment. Each and everyone of them spoke with great conviction; I had gone too far, I had crossed strictly forbidden boundaries; I had become too self-assured. So, the trial went on for a long time. Unlike in our lands, no specific charges were brought, and the legal code of this unfamiliar place didn’t seem to require one either. As far as I could make out, there was no defence. A fact that never even registered during the trial proceedings. since I was condemned to watching this trial from far below, I was unable to participate and plead my case. And, so, things took their expected turn. The verdict was rendered without any need for additional deliberation. It was not a clerk reading out the decision, and until this day I have no recollection as to who announced the decision to the packed room. On further reflection, there was no need for even making such an announcement because everybody sitting there was involved in the trial and part of the decision-making process. I mean, announcing the verdict to whom as I was watching my own trial unfolding from far below. The verdict was uncompromising and arrived at in unison: Guilty as charged. In its reasoning for sentencing me to death, the jury declared that everything that would happen to me this night I deserved and had brought on myself. No one, not a single person I had met to date, would shed a tear; no regrets and no sympathy. To enhance my suffering, it was thus determined that the method of execution would be left open, but, I was given to understand, death was imminent. The jury was dismissed, and everyone, all familiar faces, passed me by in short succession, displaying nothing except coldness and dispassionate detachment, staring down at me only ever so briefly. With humanity having forsaken me, my peers having sentenced me to death and me having already been placed in the execution chamber, my fate was sealed it seemed as the executioners were circling me eagerly, ready to make good on the court’s judgement. I had accepted the decision of my peers, and was preparing for the last chapter of my life to be written.
It was the gentle touch of a female hand, slightly but not intrusively stroking my shoulder, that helped me to reconnect with my immediate surroundings. Her voice, full of compassion and warmth, reached my ears only slowly at first. “Are you scared?” With the last bit of self-possession evaporating, I broke down sobbing quietly “Yes, I am scared to death of this place. Please, help me!” “You are tripping really, really badly. You need plenty of water.” Water? There was no way I could hold a glas of water in my state, let alone gulp it down. My body and hands were still trembling, cold sweat was running down my fore head and breathing had become a thankless task, with the air feeling as if all oxygen had been sucked out of it. My throat was still burning with pain. But, my saviour was insistent, starting to feed me drops of water in short succession. The first contact with the liquid of life triggered another earthquake; if breathing had seemed impossible before, now I felt like hyperventilating. “You know” she said “I have been observing you for a very long time tonight.” There was something off about this girl I thought. Nobody in this place talked like this. What I am trying to say is that nobody else I had met in Hell did use such perfect grammar, and I couldn’t place her accent either. Surely it was not Afrikaans, but I didn’t recall having heard the accent she was using anywhere else. Her voice was precise and crystal-clear, yet warm and compassionate. Something told me that she didn’t belong here as little as I did. Perhaps she was as much an outsider as I was, though, this assumption still had to be tested. “What are you doing here?” She wanted to know. She could as well have said “Good god, you don’t belong in such a place.”. Her persistent and loving attempts to nurse me back to some sort of sanity bore fruit very slowly, and so I told her my sad story of how I had gotten caught up in this mess. I told her about the General who had in-listed me for his mission, and about the hostel just around the corner, letting her know how afraid I was of Lucifer. And then, a revelation came when she asked me to always speak slowly with her. “Look, I have to read your lips when you talk. I cannot hear properly, but I am very good at this sort of thing.” Throughout our lengthy conversation, I would have to repeat myself only a few times. Her name was too strange for my ears to remember, but it sounded something like Shon. Shon told me in our ensuing talk that she was working in this place like all the other girls, and that she was waiting for a client of hers who was late in coming. She would, she said, stay with me until the guy showed up, and so she did. It struck me as fairly odd at this point that, if Shon worked at this place and had been around for quite some time that night, she had made no advances toward me. Also, it seemed as if she wasn’t interested in chasing clients like all the other girls I had encountered that evening. Her wish to stay with me contained not the slightest hint of flirtatiousness; her whole composure was serious and somehow sad, even though I couldn’t quite put a finger on it. All this set her strangely apart from all the other girls who frequented Hell this night. I have thought long and hard about how to put this in a less cruel manner, but, from what I could tell at this point, she seemed to be much better educated than all the others around me. Shon knew the hostel and the people around, though, she didn’t want to volunteer too much about herself. Instead, she quizzed me on everything, and so it happened that I had to relate my entire life to her. What she did tell me was that one day she was sure she would leave this place, hoping to see the world and come to London as well. If I can do it, you will do it for sure one day, knowing full well somehow that she would never make it. What other comfort could I offer her in this situation? She was just trying to save up to realise her dreams she told me and, in a way, I guess herself as well. Shon had come into my presence as the lonely but determined captain of a rescue vessel dispatched by a supreme power, a mighty force that was just there to keep things in a constant equilibrium in our universe. Once her brief was complete, however, and her mission accomplished, I knew my rescuer would walk out of my life forever. We both knew, and this made it so the more intriguing, that we were part of two completely different galaxies, spheres unequal and alien to each other.
Shon and I talked for ages I recall, and if Lucifer had not appeared at some point to snatch her away, I suppose the two of us could have carried on talking for much longer. But, eventually, Lucifer was there and told Shon that her client had arrived and was ready to receive her. Shon hesitated a slight moment only. Then, the two of us parted, but there is one other tiny twist I need to relate. Shon and Lucifer were still in earshot when I heard her plead with him. “Just leave him alone. He is such a nice, lovely man. Leave him alone, please!” Whether it was due to her intervention, or whether the General had decided at last that I had become too much of a liability and embarrassment to him, Lucifer and his demons let go of me at last. After the darkness had swallowed her, and the light that had so ever briefly illuminated Hell had been extinguished, She walked out of my life; I knew this of course at the time full well, but it left me sitting there with a heavy heart, even though I was now undisturbed. Life rarely makes for happy endings, and this might well be the reason why fictional writers are held in such high esteem in society. The respite and reprieve I had been granted allowed me to spend some time to rearrange my thoughts that night.
The dire social realities entrapping girls like Shon take no prisoners for long, particularly not in a country like South Africa. Needless to say that I have no clue as to what has become of this gentle soul, and there was and still is not much I can do for girls like her. But perhaps you can appreciate why I wanted to commemorate her in these pages. There is another boy who deserves a few words. We will meet him shortly.
Eventually, the General decided enough was enough, and the time had come to retreat to the barracks. The gates of Hell were thus opened, and we stepped out into the sweltering heat. Returning to my lodgings, a heavy silence hung in the air between us; it was the General who spoke first. “You pissed off quite a few people tonight.” If there was any humanity left in this man after all, it surfaced only briefly. “Well, that girl, Shon, she genuinely liked you.” Thinking on my feet, I realised that, in a place where the abuse of women and girls translates into hard currency, mostly for men of course, I had to be careful not to send the wrong signal and so only replied “She is diffrent.”. Whether or not the General had the intellectual faculties to understand that my phrasing of this one sentence was meant to convey coded disapproval of him and all the things I had witnessed that night is doubtful. If I had hoped our conversation would at least take a turn for the better, I was to be disappointed. His usual contempt returned with a vengeance. “Well, yes, she is different; that’s for sure.” To this day I wonder what had made crooks like him even take notice of her or comply with her wishes. But, luckily for me, they obviously did. Yet, the General was not done with me. First, he invited himself into my dorm for the rest of the night, and then he kept lecturing me constantly about how much I had disappointed him, suggesting that I would still have plenty of time to make up for my insubordination. After all, he told me, he knew the Mafia boss of Durban. In other cases I would have taken such utterances to mean that someone is in dire need for some extra attention, but, as far as the General was concerned, I believed every word, and I do so until this day. When he finally decided that he had tortured me enough, I was allowed to prepare for sleep. Trying to move toward that blessed state, I heard him speaking quietly and softly on the phone to someone, and again the name Shon was mentioned a couple of times. I caught only a few words, but he talked about me and her, mentioning the words nice and alright a few times. Finally, I managed to drift of to sleep in the knowledge that, even in Hell, there was at least one kind spirit ready to plead my case.
The events of the night had cast long shadows. Even later in the day, I still believed that something sinister was brewing under Durban’s mercilessly burning sun. The General had left long before I had woken up, but he had announced earlier that he would be returning in the evening. For the first time in my life, I decided it was time to leave. No lingering doubts were present when I called an airline and booked my return journey to Cape-town. Sitting on the plane awaiting departure the next day, the ghosts of Durban still haunted me, and in a strange way I realized that they had become my own demons; shaking them off would be everything but easy.
Before leaving Durban, however, there was still one item of business I had to attend to, and that was visiting a Zulu village located only 45 minutes away by car. My curiosity had not suffered for long. I was conscious that some of these excursions caused dilemmas. What, for instance, is stage-managed, and what is true and authentic? I am afraid that I can provide no satisfying answers in these pages either, but, as far as managing visitors was concerned, it was telling that our guide on this particular trip made it clear to me that I was to refrain from asking any questions about the HIV epidemic, ravaging the country at the time. Enquiring as to our interests, I had raised the subject innocently, but, no, that is not quite how it happened. Such a subject is never raised innocently, true. In order to develop a better understanding of the country, I had started following the South African media quite a while earlier, preparing also for my BA dissertation on democratisation in the country. In consequence, I knew plenty about its political system. The HIV epidemic was a constant subject in much of the press, and I felt that perhaps its impact on ordinary villagers could be explored and discussed with the people on the ground. In fairness to all sides concerned, at first it seemed to me that our guide was angry, but as became evident just a few minutes later, this was not so; on the contrary. As soon as she got the chance, she took me aside and told me that she understood and admired my interest in her country and her community. It set me apart from plenty of other tourists she had met over the years. But, and she conveyed this in very soft tones to me, I had to understand that this particular topic is incredibly sensitive within the black community. “Believe me” She said “It would do you more harm than anybody else.”. Instead, she told me herself what I wanted to know. Of the people I would meet in this village, probably 45 percent, perhaps even more, are likely to have been infected with the virus, and, worst of all, one third of the kids were rumoured to have been infected with the virus as well. So, she told me, a lot of the kids you will meet today plenty of them are perhaps not alive anymore in a few years. For once, I was rescued by her from blundering again in this deeply scarred nation.
“What is it with your eyes?” This was how Bruce introduced himself to me. Bruce is his real name, and I remember this 13 year old boy as if I had met him just last week. He reminded me of a young inquisitive boy; you can probably guess whom I mean. He was sharp, straightforward and extremely bright. While most of the other kids were playing around Bruce had sought out my company by himself. Even my initial attempts to be evasive had no effect on that young boy. He wanted to talk to me, and only to me. Our guide was busy in conversation faraway, and the attention of the other few visitors was focused elsewhere. Until Bruce appeared, I was lost in thought, fighting off exhaustion and fatigue; the heat in this village was truly unbearable. With a boy like Bruce, it was impossible not telling him about my life. Bruce would only let go of an issue once he had been satisfied, and the matter at hand was thoroughly explored from all possible angles. An opportunity had been granted to help nurture a young mind, and if this was so, I wouldn’t want to shy away from doing it. Having grown up within the confines of a pretty narrow world, my story made quite an impression on the young man. I guess this is what prompted him to tell me about his dreams, wanting to become a doctor, studying and seeing the world as I had done. What a pity I thought that I had no writing gear or recording equipment with me. Still believing to be a reporter one day, I thought of how best to relate stories like his to the world. If iPhone or iPad had been around in February 2003, I would remember many more intriguing details about my journey. There was genuine sadness when the two of us had to part company eventually, and, whilst writing this, I wonder what has become of him. Don’t think me cruel, but is he even still alive? If he is, to what extent has he been able to follow up on his dreams and ambitions, or has South African reality stunted his spirit like is probably the case for most of his peers? One thing is certain; withstanding the economic and social pressures in South Africa’s still hierarchical society would require enormous effort and determination. Bruce seemed like the boy who perhaps could handle these pressures, presupposing his inquisitive nature was allowed to thrive and develop further. There can be no doubt in my mind that this boy had true potential.
In the end, the brighter colours of the rainbow won the day. Despite Durban, South Africa was an education in so many regards, and I am glad I went there on my own, even though academically it was of no use and consequence. Whether it was my visit to the Khayelitsha township close to Cape-town; my stay at a school for the blind which I had arranged prior to my arrival; my trip to Robbin Island or my journey by train from Cape-town to Johannesburg right through the Karoo desert. These experiences helped me to grow enormously, and I wouldn’t want to trade them for anything else.
“It’s the Heroin.” My Dutch friend told me whilst handing me a beer. “What are you banging on about?” I shot back. “Well, you wanted to know how Craves got its name, didn’t you?” Sure, I did want to know, but, having arrived just back from his nightshift there, my friend’s abrupt outburst had struck me as rather odd. My puzzlement must have shown on my face, though. “Well, don’t be frightened. I just can tell you now, and it has all to do with the Heroin.” Sharing a beer together late in the morning in the Blue Room of the Globe Backpacker hostel, my friend would finally tell me. The night watcher had told him at last.
If there is an expiration date attached to the enterprise, living even the most decadent of lifestyles can be both, liberating and educational. Getting a glimpse of what lies beneath all the glitter and light of Sydney’s Kings Cross takes time more than anything else. Fate had it that my lodgings were right in the heart of the area on Darlinghurst Road, and, in the end, I would be spending more than 4 months there in total. The place I was staying at was called Globe Backpackers, a hostel surrounded by strip-clubs, massage parlours, cafes, bars and restaurants. Hookers roamed the street constantly offering their services. Sleeping in the vicinity was difficult at night, and most of us backpackers developed completely unfamiliar sleeping patterns. Many of us, myself included, would rise at 6 or 7 PM, not hitting the hay again before 7 or 8 AM in the morning. If it ever happened that normal sleeping hours asserted themselves, and take it from me this never lasted long, many would waste away the days in the Blue Room, starting to smoke in the morning, carrying on right through the night. The Blue Room was the common room of the Globe, but there was much more to it than meets the eye. I suppose you could say that the Blue Room would have been the dream of any hippy in the 60s. For all of us, this one room assumed cult status and had even magical qualities; by merely stepping inside, you felt like entering a different world in which time stood still. Here is the thing you need to understand. The room meant something different to every person using it as a hangout. Once I was told that in earlier times the walls had been painted all blue, but this was not so anymore when I was one of its most enthusiastic occupants. For some reasons, though, the name Blue Room stuck. In itself, there was nothing special about this magical place. There were plenty of chairs and sofas, tables and a impressive stereo. At first sight, this was its entire appeal. But the number of people passing in and out of the Blue Room every single day and night was impressive; among its worshipers were even a few locals. To me it seemed at the best of times as if the entire energy of Kings Cross had been compressed into this little tiny place. Everything was allowed there, and this naturally meant that people from all walks of life took up residence. Many came only once or twice, but there were also the once who just couldn’t get enough of freedom and unruliness. My friends and I celebrated anarchy, and to this day (dear reader) I have no regrets of having done so.
Part of Kings Crosses appeal is that it allows you to deviate from mainstream norms and conventions freely; this is to say that you can live outside the normative straitjacket that mainstream society forces all of us to wear. When I decided to take decadency to new heights by staying in Kings Cross for more than 4 months, I was not expecting that this would give me unprecedented access to characters who, by choice or necessity, had withdrawn from the lifestyle of the modern Bourgeois; a tiny few had perfected the art-form of living their otherness to such a degree that, for them, a return into Bourgeois society is something I could not at all imagine. I say this only in passing, but most of those getting sucked into the universe of decadency and anarchy were doing so by choice, knowing full well that the adventure would end sooner or later. This was the tribe I was part of, but there were exceptions, and these are the people who attracted my attention most; these were fellows I wanted to get to know.
I wasn’t introduced to him, but he was known to all of us. Kev the stoner was of frightening appearance. Imagine a tall, strong muscular man, sitting on a throne. The man in question has countless tattoos, more than 40; some believed the number even higher. Kev the stoner had no hair; truly, not a single hair was left on his head. The voice of this presence resembled more a growl than what I would normally associate with human speech, and speaking Kev the stoner rarely did. This had nothing to do with his voice mind you. Rather, it was his mouth being in constant demand, and, naturally enough, this left him little time to talk; Kev the stoner was not a man of words and letters, but appreciating his many other qualities just took time and patience. In his earlier days, he used to be a biker back in good, old Blighty. The thing with Kev the stoner was that he was always there, towering high above the rest of us mortals on his entirely undisputed throne. When some braver souls among us pondered this strange sight and thus far unheard of biological mystery in hushed conversation, it was not lost on me that one particular aspect intrigued people most; what did Kev the stoner actually do? He was always just sitting there, enjoying one joint after the next. Not recognising the lingering presence as a living, breathing organism was of genuine concern to most of us. What happened in this man’s mind we wondered, never allowed though of course. The man hardly ate either, something that all taxed our imagination even more. Occasionally, though, Kev the stoner had to surrender to the world of mere mortals and had to speak, perhaps he did so only to ensure that some of us newcomers would not mistake his presence for being a mere stature easily shoved aside. Revealing for example that he had been most proud of having beaten another fellow traveller in a joint smoking competition which, Kev the stoner proudly bellowed, took more than 48 hours, nonstop oc course. Ouur grand master had another feather in his cap; I had no trouble cheering him on.
Humanity has a strange way of showing itself when required. Being the most unequal of people, Kev the stoner and I did bond eventually. Not knowing how exactly it happened, I recall one particular late night with him. The two of us had started talking to each other before of course. But it took a very long time, since he didn’t seem to notice me at all. Well, no, this is not quite right. Kev the stoner noticed everybody and everything around him; though, he only revealed something to someone if he truly meant to do so. it must have been happening gradually. With Kev the stoner, you must understand, you can never make friends; people like him have no grasp of the concept as such. Not to be ignored by him, being tolerated by him was quite an achievement. Something along the lines of partnership perhaps is a concept people of his character may be able to fathom. Having his ear and even affection once in awhile is all you can ask for. This one night I remember so well stands apart because, for once, the Blue Room had been deserted for an extended period of time. I was alone in the Blue Room; that was except for Kev the stoner who wouldn’t leave his throne. So we sat there, letting the world pass us by. Somehow we talked, even though it was probably me doing the talking and him the rolling. In Kev the stoner’s universe, this was the natural order of things, and, for your own sake, you better made sure that this order was not disturbed. Diplomacy is not my strongpoint. I finally put the question to him that had intrigued so many of us. “Kev, what are you running away from?” Even from my sitting place I could sense how Kev the stoner turned to ice, stoppping his constantly present joint rolling was a sure sign to this effect. He just sat there, obviously not even entertaining the idea of answering me. Had I offended this larger than life character and giant of a man after all? Having destroyed the work of months with one question? And then, Kev the stoner did something I never saw him do before. He vacated his throne, making his way toward the sofa I had been chilling out on until this point. He took a seat next to me putting a Bong right between the two of us. “Listen up young man,” Kev the stoner growled at last “you know what your problem is? Your problem is that you read people far too well. Take it from me, this will cause you trouble one day.” He was right on that count of course, but this is of no significance here. As I was just giving up hope of hearing anything more from him, he surprised me by continuing “I have done bad, terrible things in my life which I am not proud of.” Lighting the Bong, inviting me to join in, he suddenly seemed amused, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Seriously, you are the strangest man I have ever met in my life.” Kev the stoner had spoken at last. Then, he ascended his undisputed throne and was his old self again. The two of us got along just fine as long as we knew each other.
If there are any misfits, people who live the decadent life more out of necessity than choice, it was probably Gay Steve. My closest friend at the time, a lovely Dutch guy, knew him well and much better than I did. Gay Steve was a mysterious man of sorts. He was English, and as far as I know, he has returned to the UK long ago. But, according to my Dutch friend who still talks to him occasionally even today, Gay Steve hasn’t changed one bit. To me he always seemed to be of such a mental makeup that he almost had to carve out a different existence for himself just to maintain his own sanity. Gay Steve was a heavy but unrepentant drug user. Joints wouldn’t do it for him. He was the sort of man who had booked a trip on a space-shuttle without even considering a return ticket. Returning to our world didn’t even register for Gay Steve, knowing that there was no place for him to occupy. In gay Steve’s world, no parachutes were required for any sound landing. Backpacking didn’t satisfy him for long. Pretty quickly, he sold drugs outside various night clubs, bragging constantly to all of us about his earnings; not long after, Gay Steve was out of the hostel, remaining true to his life based on selling drugs and joining the large and vibrant gay community in Syddney. The thing that always concerned me most about this man were his constant attempts to recruit others to his various enterprises. With whom he had success, I cannot say and don’t want to know. As far as concerned our personal relationship, I had no trouble with him, since he treated me always with great curtesy and even warmth. What drives people like Gay Steve to choose the path he had chosen for himself, I have never managed to truly figure out. But he was another of those colourful characters whom I socialised with for months pretty intensely; knowing Gay Steve I never did though. I didn’t get the answers or understanding I was looking for. I count myself lucky if he helped me at least asking the right questions. Opposite the hostel was a Cafe we all simply called Craves. This place was visited by hookers, locals and backpackers alike, and was open 24 hours a day right throughout the year. If you ever look for the true inventory of Sydney’s red light district, you will find it by visiting this location. It was there that I got to know quite a few hookers. They were of course everywhere to be found, and as the months went by, relations between many of them and myself became more intimate. By this I mean that we got to know each other socially, and, without having ever intended to do so, I had slowly built my own little Praetorian Guard around me. I suppose that my disability made them open up more readily. While this is something I cannot and do not want to take credit for, it is also something I cannot change. In relation to myself, many of them turned out to be incredibly helpful in daily life. Some of them would even eventually help me to withdraw cash from an ATM, and I still recall, as they were mostly accompanying me in small groups, that they could be planning a mugging or something along these lines. They never did. If Durban had been hell, Kings Cross was paradise. The reality of the situation had not escaped me entirely, being constantly aware that most of them had a serious drug problem. A tiny few even admitted as much in private conversation. One of these sex workers was Kelly. I met her before my Dutch friend encountered her at Craves. Kelly and I were waiting in line to be served when the two of us started talking to each other for the first time. Eventually she would tell me that she was doing this job to earn enough to raise her little kid. It always baffled me how, even in a country like Australia, drug addicted sex workers rationalise their trade. No one needs to pursue such work in order to bring up a child in Australia. Sadly, it didn’t take long before it was plainly visible that Kelly, like so many others working in Kings Crosses sex industry, had indeed a serious drug problem. Meeting her didn’t mean that you could talk to her sensibly. Mostly she was so hyped up on Cocaine or Heroin that she was incoherent to say the least. My Dutch friend who worked at Craves at night for quite some time as a kitchen hand confirmed my suspicions, telling me that he saw her coming in there very often being completely out of place. Not wanting to dwell on this particular issue much longer, I must point out that to this day I am advocating completely legalising prostitution; neither sex workers nor their clients should be criminalised by the state, and the trade should be taxed like any other business. I have used the services of sex workers (or body workers as many of them would like to be referred to nowadays) occasionally. Not having committed to any lasting relationship, I saw no harm in doing so. Yet, in Kings Cross and South Africa, I have not, and why should have become obvious by now.
If Craves is inventory of Kings Cross, then, the night watcher is the human inventory of the cafe itself. The man who had worked in there for more than 30 years has a real name of course. But let us remember him simply as the night watcher. My friend described him to me once, not because I had prompted him to do so, but because he wanted to paint a picture for me, giving me something to make sense of him. The night watcher is an old man, even though he never revealed his age exactly. But, the years show. Drooping eyes, a worn out face and a tired look; sadness seemed his constant companion; That’s him. He was not a talkative man, just occasionally telling those who would listen that he had seen it all. My Dutch friend I believe is quite a reliable source for the purpose of this little tale. having worked at Craves he came very close to the night watcher, certainly much closer than the rest of us living in the Globe. This is when the night watcher told my friend that calling the cafe Craves drew its sad inspiration from the side-effects of Heroin. One of them, according to the night watcher, is that those addicted to the substance crave sweets more than anything else. This, he said, is why Craves sells so many of them; it’s mainly for the hookers. Now, if you have accompanied me on this journey thus far, I must confess that I have absolutely no inkling as to whether this is true or not, and I feel no urge to find out. But, in the bigger scheme of things, does it really matter?
At last, let me briefly tell you about the bottle shop across the road. It was a shabby little place, though for us backpackers it was a blessing as far as wine was concerned. Often, we would buy Australian Goon wine in 4 litter casks spending just 12 Australian Dollars. The wine was low in quality but potent in all other respects. For me it usually did the trick, but, even in Kings Cross, decadency had a price tag attached to it. Why I did so I don’t know, but another of my so greatly cherished election day rituals emerged over time drawing its inspiration from buying Australian Goon in this bottle shop. Whenever Australians are heading to the polls, as they are doing today, I have to bottles of French red wine sitting in my fridge, and, each time again, have to find out whether the divine is truly in the wine, or whether it is the devilish and diabolical after all. For me this conjecture is easily dealt with. Throughout the counting, I empty only the first bottle. If the election goes my way, I treat myself to the second one as well which, even though I make sure it is the same brand, tastes always sweeter than the first.
The tides have turned at last, dropping me off at shore, doing so only ever so gently. The sea has calmed, and I am resting now. Occasionally, my little boat glides into view, reassuring me that it is still there, ready to be boarded. One day, so much is certain, I will venture out again. Until then, I am afraid, I can do little else but watch the sea from afar. The next wave will come again, clearing away all the clutter which by then will have piled up all around me once more. And so, I do nothing else, but watching and waiting.