Malmsbury is a small town stretched out along the road – a village, really – with a couple of galleries, a couple of antique shops and a couple of cafes on one side, and across the road the fire station, police station and a couple of other buildings. In the evening the police car pulls up outside the station, the policeman reverses carefully into the garage, and a little later reappears in shorts and a T-shirt and carefully puts his wheelie bins out on the pavement. He’s a burly bald guy in his 50s, and he’s been here since the 1980s. I don’t suppose there’s much in the way of crime in Malmsbury, although there is an investigation going on since the body of a female in her 60s was discovered at a nearby river, where it had lain undisturbed for some months.
Outside the Post Office and general store is a noticeboard which gives some insight into the priorities of the community: “Bass player wanted for Linda Ronstadt tribute band.” “Missing dog – answers to the name of Winslow” (answers how? Barks upon being addressed, raising a paw aloft?). “Funeral Celebrant – specialist in celebrating the life of your Loved One.” And taking centre stage, “Rats of the Sky”. Not pigeons, as they are known in London, but Indian mynah birds. A CCTV camera observes the three plastic tables and chairs outside the general store, which also does takeaway food. Last night I had a burger from there with “The Lot” – an Aussie speciality, involving bacon, egg, beetroot, pineapple and cheese atop the burger. And a minimum chips. Other slightly bewildering things appearing on Aussie takeaway menus are a “Kransky” – apparently a type of hot dog with cheese inside – and “Pluto Pups”: deep fried mini hotdogs, if I understood correctly.
I checked in to Melbourne Central YHA for my last night in Australia, as it lay just round the corner from Southern Cross station and the airport shuttle bus. Melbourne on a sunny Sunday afternoon was all but deserted. I met a group of young Swedes on the rooftop terrace of the hostel. First big trip overseas, that kind of thing. They had hired a car and were setting off along the Great Ocean Road the next day, then the Grampians, and maybe up to Alice Springs. They were very excited. And where was I going tomorrow, they asked?
A brief silence. Did I mean the outdoor shop on Collins Street? Then slow nods. “Cool!”
At Southern Cross there was a minor delay when a woman was prevented from boarding the bus with her takeaway coffee. “No hot drinks allowed!” admonished an official. I looked out at the suburbs of northern Melbourne through the blue-tinted window, at people going to work. It was 6.30 in the morning. Bev and Mick’s tavern. Happy hour. Live sports. Bungalows. White wooden buildings. Corrugated iron roofs. A cartoon kangaroo on a billboard. A ute with P plates (L plates in the UK) zigzagging from lane to lane in a boom of exhaust. White SUVs like refrigerators. A truck went by driven by a guy in shorts, hi-viz yellow polo shirt and Blundstone boots. The iconography of Australiana. I saw the Calder Highway exit and the sign to Bendigo, and felt a small twinge. It’s not exactly the loveliest of cities, but it was somewhere I had been just a day or two earlier. Kangaroo Flat shopping centre (which I always dubbed Flat Kangaroo mentally), with its Coles supermarket and its Big W and Pet Centre and Hungry Jacks. Was it really possible that I was leaving, after four months here? Yes. Time to go.
Air Asia Flight D7215 to Kuala Lumpur was half empty, and there was a fairly sombre mood on board. Only a few days earlier one of their planes had gone down, crashing into the Java Sea, over which we would be flying. Many of the cabin crew wore little white ribbons on their lapels in memoriam. It was unusual to be on a flight where there was almost no chatter, no passengers interacting; everyone seemed lost in their thoughts. We hit turbulence crossing the northern coast of Australia and rain spattered the windows, but soon we emerged again into dazzling sunlight. After eight hours or so we began our descent to Kuala Lumpur. I’d been here before many years earlier, but wasn’t stopping this time – I had an hour and a half to connect to the next Air Asia flight to Kathmandu. Fortunately, Malaysia being a civilised sort of place, the airport had a smoking room – the usual tiny space where it was possible to make out a few figures congregating around the walls through the eye-watering fug. I topped up on nicotine and tea, then made my way to the next gate. Here the demographic had changed: everyone was Nepalese, the plane was full, and there was a general air of high spirits at going home. As befitting a country that lies between Tibet and India, their features ranged from the smooth broad faces and oriental eyes of the Tibetan plateau through to the hawkish features and dark skin of India. Jostled by a series of shoulder-high, smiling men in leather jackets with no concept of personal space, I felt myself back on the subcontinent at last.
The two Chinese stewardesses were driven to distraction by the chaos – people taking on suitcases as hand baggage, others choosing to sit with friends instead of in allocated seats, and a sudden rush for the toilets as we were taxiing down the runway. After four uneventful and generally unpleasant hours, the minute the pilot announced that we were about to begin our descent to Kathmandu and that we should keep our seatbelts fastened and refrain from using our mobile phones, half the passengers leapt to their feet, got their bags out of the overhead lockers and the plane was filled with the beeping of text messages as we came into phone signal range. The stewardesses did a heroic job, alternately nannying and scolding; a few seconds before the wheels bumped down on the tarmac one man made a dash for the toilet, but was tackled and escorted back to his seat. It was all great fun. Baggage reclaim took two hours, and involved a kind of good-natured pushing and shoving where, if you were not in actual physical contact with the person next to you, someone else would insert themselves into the space until you were. Parched with dehydration, cursing the fact that I had passed a perfectly good water fountain in KL without filling my bottle, and beginning to get a little weak at the knees with fatigue, I pulled out my phone and saw that it was 3.30 in the morning in Melbourne. I had been on the move for 21 hours. Having finally reclaimed my large orange rucksack, I was halted briefly at Customs. “Baggage tag?” the officer enquired. I had no such tag.
“What is your name?” he asked.
He waggled his head. “OK, you can pass.”
What if I was called Steve, or something?
I woke at six in the morning to the sound of handbells and the scent of incense. The old gods are still alive in Kathmandu, it seems. It was cold. After a chilly barefoot scamper to the bathroom, where I had to embark upon some minor plumbing work by torchlight in order to get the toilet to flush (brand name “Splash”), I dived back under the covers and listened to the sounds of Kathmandu coming awake: assorted hoicking and flobbing noises as people underwent their ablutions, the first snarl of motorbikes and hooting traffic, and the cry of a vendor rising and falling. Picking my way past the sleeping forms of the staff in the guesthouse lobby I emerged into the courtyard and had the first chai of the day. Soon a Nepalese guy appeared with a bucket, filled it from the fountain in the centre of the courtyard, and disappeared down an alleyway. Music began to play: the familiar Om Mani Padme Hum chanted chorus that played in a never-ending loop in the Wonderland restaurant in Ladakh. It was fitting; things have come full circle. I am back.