Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Existential attitude turning on a dime

When I was backpacking through Australia a dozen years ago, I saw something early one morning that has stuck with me for years. It was maybe 6:30am on a Sunday. Sydney was still waking up. The hostel I'd been staying at was in Potts Point, north of the crazy vibe of Kings Cross.

I was walking near Bourke Street which is kind of steep and overlooks the Botanical Gardens to the west. It's an area with elite cafes and arty gentrified Victorian townhouses most Australians couldn't begin to afford.

I was coming up this steep section of old sidewalk using all the physical fitness I'd gained while working for the Forest Service in Colorado earlier in the year. The morning light was golden and everything was misty and haloed, even the parked cars. The numerous cockatoos and parrots that permeate the city were making their wild morning ruckus. The air was cool, limpid and the harbor gave everything the exotic tang of salt air.

At the top of the hill I was scaling were a pair of birds making a joyous clucking and buzzing sound as they pecked at something on the asphalt. They were dandy creatures in neat brown feathers with neon-bright yellow beaks. They kept pausing in their pecking to squawk at each other as if they were having an intense conversation.

Indian myna birds are one of many invasive non-native species in Australia.

This was one of the few times I've felt at peace with myself and Sydney was one of the few cities I ever felt at home in.

When I reached the two birds standing in a pool of gold light I realized they weren't eating crumbs from a sandwich or something equally agreeable. They'd found a puddle of puke left by some blind-drunk tourist and were nimbly eating it.

I walked past them carefully, suddenly feeling like I'd mistaken some gauzy spiritual moment for another crude foul example of human imperfection. It was like witnessing two people in a graveyard and assuming they were mourners or relatives paying their respects only to realize they were grave robbers looting the dead.

I've been juggling the contradiction of that scene in my head ever since. On the one hand, it was a beautiful morning and the birds did look sublime. Everything looked right. On the other, the ugly reality of vomit in the streets.

If I ever meet the Dalai Lama I'll ask him what he thinks of this.

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