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Sunday, 24 April 2005
Arrived on Thursday Island!
A shiny black stretch limo and hordes of photographers were waiting for me at the end
of the jetty as I set foot on T.I. for the first time in twenty-eight years. A brass
band was playing and a throng of people was jostling to have a closer look at me while
pretty girls draped flower garlands around my neck ... well, so much for my dreams.
The reality was a little less glamorous as I walked down hot and dusty Victoria Parade
towards my lodgings at the Federal Hotel.
As I purposefully strode into the Federal Hotel, the heads of those at the bar
turned towards me in unison, as if following the flight of a tennis ball at Wimbledon.
Wearing shoes and socks, I was - by T.I. standards - decidedly overdressed and had to be a
tourist from down south.
Just like an orchestra has a lead violinist so every pub has its lead drunk in residence.
However, walking into a pub on T.I. is more like walking into a Resident Drunks' Convention.
Don't believe the rubbish that biologists or physicists give you about human beings being
90% water. The guys on T.I. are at least 90% BEER! In the evenings, when they are well
into their drinks, mosquitoes would bite them and then fly straight into a wall.
One of the drunks, doing his utmost to focus his bloodshot eyes on me, put his hand on my
shoulder in a gesture of friendship which serendipitously also prevented him from falling
over. Whether he was inquiring where I was from or had invited me for a drink I failed
to make out from his slurred speech; however, to his credit he was perhaps the only
friendly Torres Strait Islander I encountered in the whole week I was there.
These days, whites are treated to what is known as the "100-yard stare"
which makes them feel invisible. Those stares seem to say, in not so many words,
"Give us your tax-dollars, but otherwise go and [insert the appropriate
The Federal Hotel's website had waxed poetic about its Pearl Lugger Restaurant's
"ULTIMATE atmosphere." I had previously emailed David, the owner, that this should
probably have read "INTIMATE atmosphere" - just how intimate it was I found out when I
entered it the first evening: the cook and I were the only ones present.
David and Janine were the new owners of the Federal, but only six months into a
30-year lease it seemed as though T.I. was going to get the better of them. There had
been all sorts of mishaps, and the patronage being less than expected,
they were about to sack the cook and close the restaurant. A replacement was due in
a couple of days to provide breakfasts for the motel guests and simple counter lunches
in the bar.
My lodgings were decidedly sub-standard: a bed with a lumpy mattress, a shelf along the
wall, a television that didn't work, a rusty fridge, and a single light-bulb hanging
from the high ceiling. I unpacked my few belongings and placed them on the wall shelf,
and set up my small short-wave radio on the bedside table to give me instant access
to the wider world. Nights can be very long for the solo traveller in a remote place,
when the only evening pleasure is listening to the radio, and I am a devoted ABC Radio
National listener and tune into Phillip Adam's LATE NIGHT LIVE every night at 10 past 10.
The shower and bathroom were shared facilities and I seemed to share them with some guests long since
gone, judging by the pieces of old soap, rusty razors, and assorted wrappings littering
the top of the shower cubicle. Cleanliness was not the management's long suit and I
had bets with another guest as to how long it might take before table-tops and ash-trays
would be cleaned on the verandah which, with its stunning views, made up for much of the neglect.
I did have a fridge in my room but it took a lot of scrounging to get a few bits of
crockery and cutlery so that I could prepare even a basic snack.
Grocery prices on T.I. were simply astronomical and no amount of talk about high freight costs could
explain away the fact that just about every item on the shelves cost at least twice as
much as down south and often even more. And these were basic items; never mind that a carton
of beer sold for $84 because the worst drinkers were on Government-handouts anyway and the
hotels and bottle-shops were little more than Government-money recycling centres.
All the hotels had ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) which were the Islanders' modern-day "cargo cult" -
with a well-worn path right back to the bar. Perhaps they used simplified ATMs,
you know the ones that took no money but only dispensed it because
the traffic was strictly one way: from the hard-working southern taxpayers to the hard-drinking
residents of the Torres Strait.