Forty-four degrees on the thermometer in the shade (the shade!) of the open-walled garage. A breeze struggles to push the heavy, hot air across the hostel grounds and replace it with hotter, heavier air. All movement has come to a near standstill here. Some twigs are lazily blown across the gravel, no one is out of there rooms. The parrots and the cat are nowhere to be seen…
The standstill is deceptive, however. It is a mere stalemate, a temporary quiet, hiding a brooding war. I’m not talking about the small, friendly wars between the backpackers: the table tennis war (I am lagging behind in second place for table tennis kingdom) the inflatable-doughnut diving war, or the special missions to locate and untangle the mythical rope swings along the town’s two rivers.
I am not even talking about the explosion of drunken courage and violence by the lake last night, resulting from the built op tensions between a few of Welsh guys and a couple of otherly-British young men. Someone was pushed into the river with the holy trinity of phone, wallet, and weed in his pockets. Push came to shove, shove came to punch. And before you knew it, thirty of us were struggling to control five exploding Britons. So it goes. But, people sobered up, and peace seems to have been re-established.
…A door opens, a tall, tattooed Irish guy bravely walks out of his air-conditioned, five-person room and heads towards the stairs. Mere seconds later, a loud series of fucks breaks through the silence. A weighty silence that had the thickness of sludge and seemed as heavy as the hot air that was unwilling to vibrate. By now, muscular Irish fellow has turned around at the top of the stairs and is running back for his slippers, as the iron steps have burned his feet. Some dazed people stumble out of the kitchen (even hotter than outside and cooled merely by a feeble ceiling fan) and gather pace in the same direction of the Irish bloke.
All are heading towards the pool area. The water of the swimming pool, which in a mysterious way defies all outside influences to remain perpetually ‘fucking cold’, is the only thing that allows us a life outside our air-conditioned rooms (unless you make it as far as the river). The best way is to jump right in the deep end, and four yells and an equal amount of splashes bring the Wentworth Central Motor Inn to life.
Every home, every place can become a microcosm with its own rules, its own characters, its hierarchies, and its routines. A house, a school, a workplace, they are all closed off from the rest of the world to a certain degree. In order to replace the hole left by the outside world, it becomes its own little world.
Trapped in our microcosm, it slowly increases its hold over us. We become trapped in its rhythms and rules. Our relationships to the people there become more and more important, gossip is born, subgroups form, and physical places obtain a special significance. These meanings change with time and are different for various people within the microcosm, but they are an important part of it: the coffee machine of reprieve and gossip, the office of stress, the hallway of politeness. Here we have the kitchen of politeness, the intimidating balcony of loud people, the reception-house of work and repression, and the night-time river of serious drunkenness and tomfoolery.
Soon, however, people start taking their microcosms a little bit too seriously (as we do with most things in life). These little worlds become as large as the big world. Our gossip becomes more important, and more hurtful. The microcosm becomes such a structural part of our life that its little problems become our dilemmas, its setbacks our disasters, and its arguments take on the size of wars. Only later when we have escaped the grips of this microcosm, do we look back and wonder why those colleagues or teachers, those quarrels or intrigues once seemed so huge and important to us.
As I said, however, our slumbering underground war is not between the backpackers. It’s a story of a hostel owner who hates hostels. This place was not meant to be a hostel, but a motel. The tourism of Wentworth appears to have seen better time, as can be seen from the unnaturally large number of motels and pubs in this sleepy town. It must have been connected with its earlier importance as the meeting place of Australia’s two rivers, and its past as a haven for gamblers (being right on the border with Victoria were gambling was once strictly forbidden). Built right behind the owner’s house this place obviously used to be a motel with a nice little swimming pool, a huge parking area, and an abandoned restaurant building, which now functions merely as the ping pong stadium of our little microcosm.
The hostel owner who hates hostels, is a really friendly and warm person when things go well. Willing to listen, to talk, and to help out. However, when she decided to save the business by converting it into a working hostel for us backpackers, she jumped into the wrong deep waters. The dirt that accumulates between the ferreting backpackers, and the wild, alcohol-induced exuberance that can come over young people, and leaves empties everywhere, are just too much for her.
Allright. Enough with the context and build-up. This is what happened:
The owner was always too optimistic when advertising the availability of work that would be provided via the hostel. In that happier world farms may have at times doubled in size and picking seasons would start at their most positive prognoses. To some these were vile lies to cage us here, by offering us piecemeal work to pay rent until real work might someday arrive; to others it was good business; and to the most ‘glass half-full’ of us it was sheer optimism.
But it all really started… with Christmas. We were only some eight people in the hostel at that time and the owner very generously indeed bought us dinner at The Royal, our local pub. Meanwhile, a huge clean-up of the kitchen was announced, all food past its due date would be thrown away. But, when we woke up, our once rich kitchen was devoid of all our frozen products, a huge collection of spices, and worse… all my chocolate. When we approached the two Scottish employees and the hostel owner, the latter exploded into a diabolical rage, during which only the words FILTHY, WRONG, and ROTTING MEAT could be made out. Later we got an apology and some spices were returned, but it was a prelude of things to come.
As the days got hotter, and younger semi-alcoholic (especially British) backpackers filed up the hostel, the diabolical flames would also return. Fields of beer bottles and goon (cheap wine cartons) built up, that spiked a rage that suddenly ignited towards the most innocent of backpackers enjoying a warm day by the pool. Some words and phrases were made out WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE and NO MORE FOOD, NO MORE DRINKS BY THE POOL. These state of emergency measures, would deliver the first casualties on our side. Two Estonian girls were reprimanded for having drinks by the pool, but when they placed their drinks outside the fence, a misunderstanding of the ‘pool area’ let to them looking the rage right in the eye at a distance of less than one meter. No words could even be made out this time, but cups were seen flying their direction, and cheap red goon left blood-like marks on the floor.
Now, the most recent development really brings us to the brink. An amazing fifty-year old Australian, who works with our small group of watermelon pickers, had just started to give us boxes of vegetables from his own garden, to feed the poor jobless backpackers at the hostel. Until one day, between breakfast and post-work lunch one of two boxes disappeared. And the next day the other one had vanished too…
When our scouts found the missing vegetables in the hostel’s big bins that the backpackers don’t use, we found that our microcosm was growing out of hand. Rules, arguments, and shouting had turned into guerilla warfare. Logically, cries of outrage and grim discussions now light up the underground meetings of backpackers, voices seem to be giving rise to a rebellion.
The Scottish peacemakers are our only hope. This put the Scottish pair in the nasty situation of having to wade through the minefield and manage both sides of the conflict. Like the hostel owner they are overworked, doing late night pick up shifts from the nearby city and dropping people of at work or (for the fleeing refugees) back to that same city, early in the morning. However, they desperately try to save the situation. Hanging on to the ropes, trying to reform a balance, they talk to us and they talk to Val. Searching for better, cleaner behaviour; apologies; and a replacement of vegetables.
It might just be enough. Meanwhile, whispers about toilet-papering the house are brewing within the depths. Will the Scottish people prevail and common sense return, or will the wasps zoom out?