Though I like to call myself a Vagabondic, truth is I am an agoraphobic. For the past three years I have been unemployed, living with my parents in regional Australia, and confined to a small and shrinking world. Before this handicap hit me I did indeed glide around the globe, I glided around the world gleefully, domiciling in Japan for 10 years where I taught English and enjoyed all kinds of adventures, most of them legal and legit, heaps of them happy and some of them sad, all of them educational in one way or another. Every day in Japan was an adventure to be honest, an adventure and a cultural experience, as well as an initiation into the enigma of the East. If I had known, back then, that one day I would be compelled to crawl home to the sanctuary of Mum and Dad in smalltown Australia, that would have been like totally my worst nightmare... it would have been worse than a nightmare, in fact, because nightmares get awoken from eventually, while this affliction just keeps persisting on and on and on. It goes to show that fate, destiny, whatever you like to call it has a strange habit of reversing things, turning reality into dream, and dream into reality; now the Prodigal Son is home again, not because he wanted to return, but because he was forced to... and for a long time he was not particularly happy about that fact. He was pretty pissed off about it, to be blunt, and couldn't understand what had happened. He had assumed, during those long halcyon days in Old Harmony, that his Australian life had been put far behind him. As it turns out, however, his Australian life is suddenly back in front of him, back in all its hoary glory, like a sumo wrestler in a cage fight, 400 pounds of grimace and pain. And, alas, the sumo is too big for Sonic to jump this time!
Right now, I can travel only about 25 kilometers from home before I succumb to anxiety and dread. That's my Safety Zone, a circle with a radius of 25km. When I approach the edge of the Safety Zone my palms and scalp get sweaty, and my muscles seize up. The world closes in around me, and I worry that I am not really real. If I am driving a car, my zone is even smaller, I am not sure why. Maybe it is because driving is inherently more stressful??? hmmm, that sounds sensible enough. Crowds and loud noises frighten me, and coffee is a definite no-no. Although I used to travel frequently on the train, these days I can manage only one stop in either direction from my local station before I am forced to bundle out the door, hyperventilating. If I try to go two stops, I might well have a panic attack.
For the past three years, this Safety Zone has been my prison. Now, it wouldn't be so bad if I was stuck in New York City, Paris or Prague. In such cities you could spend a whole lifetime within a 25km radius and never get bored. That's true too for Tokyo, and Seoul; hell, it is probably also the case with Tehran! These places have density, and history, and soul (and no doubt, plenty of agoraphobic artists there trying to make the most of their handicaps, trying to turn their afflictions into art!) The location of my exile, on the contrary, is a scrap of suburbia on the edge of scrappy bush, in what could possibly be the most boring barrio of the world: the Central Coast of New South Wales, north of Sydney on the eastern shore of Australia, the western edge of the Pacific Ocean. I am sorry if I have offended the locals by dissing your 'hood such, I know you guys love it a lot up here. I have to concede the weather is nice, if repetitively so. There are a lot of nice beaches in the area, which attract hordes of holidaymakers every summer. There are never any earthquakes (well, not that often anyway!), nor are there any volcanic eruptions, nor political strife of any kind. That's partly the problem, though: nothing interesting happens! For me, a bit of danger always spices things up, like mustard on a dull cut of beef, or a hip-hop sample on an atmospheric Drum&Bass tune. This place is too vanilla, too white bread, too white trash for my tastes. If you are a fisherman, or a surfer, or a birdwatcher or tattoo artist, then the Central Coast is your paradise. If you are more interested in culture, and cuisine, and couture, then it is more likely to be your hell. That is my opinion, and I stand by it. But then I am biased, because I don't really want to be here in the first place.
|For a recovering agoraphobic, even a trip to the letterbox can be a struggle... but it could also be an amazing adventure! It depends on how you look at it. (Australia, 2014)
Recently I discovered that my new Samsung smart phone (Galaxy Pocket Neo) automatically uploads every single photo that I take during my daily movements to Google+, where Google keeps hold of them, immortalized on the cloud. Using cues like the date, time and GPS location, Google curates my pictures into artfully arranged albums, and even sends me an email inviting me to inspect its handiwork. How cool is that? A little creepy, but cool nonetheless! When I view the photos at the end of each day I am always amazed by how much territory I managed to cover, and all of the beautiful scenes that I was privileged to have witnessed. For an agoraphobic, it is not a bad effort, and it shows that even in a small world there is still so much to see. Maybe one day Google could write blog entries for me based on where I go, who I interact with, and what music I listen to on my iPod. The Andy Warhol of tomorrow could make a new movie every day with footage culled from Google Glass, and a hectic and heroic social life. I don't have much of a social life at all these days, but I do have my Samsung smart phone, and I have a Safety Zone 50km from edge to edge. That's 1963 square kilometres of world for me to explore, and document here online! One small, hesitant step at a time, of course, with Valium always at hand...
|Wyong, Then and Now: Courtesy of Samsung and Google+
At the south-west edge of my Safety Zone lies the town of Wyong, population 3600, the seat of local government and the region's most important transportation hub. I have been catching the bus there a lot lately to see a psychologist about my agoraphobia, and challenge myself on the train. To pass the time waiting for my appointment or to celebrate a successful mission on the rails, I like to walk around and take photos of things that entice me. While I used to think that Wyong was a hole, I have been impressed lately by the number of old colonial buildings in the town. My Mum, who grew up here, knows the history of all these buildings, the families who used to live inside them, knowledge that I will attempt to preserve in the (evolving) photo essay above. Click on the link above to take a stroll through the streets of Wyong, a mile in my shoes, recorded for all time!
|Walking in Weemala: Can I reach the beach?
|Norah Head: Local landmark with a lighthouse
|Sunny San Remo: A neglected suburb
As a young man fresh out of college I worked as a cub reporter for the Wyong Shire Advocate, which had its office in Toukley, a quiet holiday town. During my second year at the Advocate my editor assigned me the round of covering the northern part of the Wyong Shire, specifically suburbs like San Remo which felt they were being neglected by the paper. One morning a week I would drive up past Budgewoi Lake and see what was going on. Frustratingly, I never managed to find many good stories. Nothing much seemed to happen in this part of the shire. Returning for a series of visits this winter, I found San Remo to be as sleepy as it ever was. There are a lot of colourful murals, however, many of which bear Aboriginal themes, and depictions of local wildlife. They make suburbia that bit more cheerful.
|The Entrance: My gateway to the wider world
The town known as The Entrance is the most multicultural part of my realm, and potentially the most exciting. In summer when Lebanese women sunbathe on North Entrance Beach with their scarves and tattooed boyfriends, the place starts to resemble a baby Beirut. In the Thai restaurants on The Entrance Road, woks sizzle with the heat of Bangkok. White guys walk the streets with their Asian girlfriends. If I could hustle myself one of those, I might almost be content to live here.
|Wyrrabalong National Park: Refuge of red gums
If these photos sometimes seem clumsy and clandestine, that's because they were taken furtively, on the fly. I apologize for any fingers in corners of the frame, blurriness and so on. When you are taking photos on the boundaries of your range, you don't have time to compose the scene artfully. It is rather a case of shoot and run. Nonetheless, I hope there is something Mirror Sydney about these suites, with all their attention to detail, the celebration of the minutiae, preservation of local history, and the elevation of the microcosm over the macrocosm. I hope that, as time goes by, I will get more adventurous, and push a little further against the bubble that encases me. One day I might even make it to Bateau Bay!