The Bay of Lotus Eaters

“They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”

~Odyssey IX

So I returned to Byron Bay, a purgatory of ease. A bubble that entices and ensnares with sweet triviality. Where everyone belongs to the leisure class. A buffet of culture condensed in a single square kilometer. Byron’s charm invites an international medley of surfers, caravaners, backpackers, tourists, gypsies, and hippies. Under the umbrella of Byron’s allure mix all these with the vagabonds and bohemians, the locals and aboriginals, and the simply wandering and curious.

Byron Bay’s character eludes definition. It is a different animal to all who experience its capricious flavor. It’s a tourist trap dominated by night clubs, bars, and parties. It’s a shopping destination where commercialism has usurped the hippie image to sell hemp shirts and scented candles. It’s a surf town with ceaseless waves breaking on pristine white-sand beaches.

The aboriginals claim Byron as their own. The locals are proud to be so, and they wear that title like a badge of honor. They defend it fiercely. Fights have broken out over the appellation. The gypsies, vagabonds and bohemians add their own flavor, and atavistically see Byron as a hippie town at its heart. The eclectic mash effectively casts Byron Bay in an amorphous light, as a masquerade ball with everyone dancing to a different beat.

My belly was filled with chicken-mango-curry pot pie, my heart with the heady hopes of a child sneaking downstairs on Christmas morning. Hefting all my possessions on my back, I trudged across the white sand into the dunes I once knew and loved. The sand chirped under each step I took. The stars glittered numinously in the sky overhead. And the lights of town faded in the distance behind me. The night air wrapped me up in a familiar warmth, and I felt like I was walking into a memory.

The trees there hadn’t missed a step in their slow dance to the winds and rains. Two years of gusts and downpours, of sways and bows, left my beloved forest almost unrecognizable. I wandered through warily, looking for a spot to set up camp. Within minutes I stumbled onto a familiar ritual marked by the unmistakable flick of a lighter, followed by a bubbling gurgle and a quick inhale. As my luck would have it, the smoky draw belonged to an old friend of mine. The reunion felt like providence, tasted like victory. So within minutes of my arrival, life in Byron Bay continued right where it left off.

I spent two months there, camping on the beach, catching sunrises astride a surfboard, and spending my days with hippies, artists, drug dealers, musos, lost souls, the torn and broken, drunks, thieves, addicts, criminals, vagabonds, knaves, and other dregs of society that have slipped through the cracks and dripped, flowed and pooled in the cradle that is Byron Bay.

That’s what Byron is to me, a cradle with a nurturing white sand mattress covered by a lush green doona. The trees shelter humans and bush turkeys, snakes and spiders, cane toads and echidnas in simple cohabitation. Each night the moon sashays with majestic grace across an inky black firmament. The galactic mobile swirls above her. The ocean below offers its lullabies with soothing constancy. And the hilltop lighthouse, the nightlight of Byron Bay, blinks tirelessly through the darkness.

Those dunes receive those who reside in them like a tireless mother who, without judgment or bitterness, bares the ignominies of her children. Shredded tarpaulins, abandoned tents, empty food containers, broken bongs, and filthy clothing are left in heaps by careless people. All of it is scattered by curious bush turkeys. The disgrace is a crack on a porcelain doll. Whether mama dune sheds a tear over the dishonor remains unknown. The absence of gratitude is not met with harsh words of reproach. Despite the abuse, the dunes retain their serene allure.

Life is easy in Byron Bay. Food and water, friends and drugs, roll in as steadily as buses full of tourists. As a result, people get stuck here. In their common adherence to a lifestyle none can optimally define, they form a community. And that community exists on the fringe of society. It revels in its idiosyncrasy, touts free love and simple living, and views commercialism as a great sin. From this perspective it imagines itself vaguely superior.

Living on the fringe contains an intrinsic thrill. It is a narcotic that imbues its users a rebellious audacity. It’s a realm where famous rock-stars eat spilled ice cream off the street. Where drugs are traded as currency. Where discarded food and cigarettes are collected for sustenance.

Within the structure of society there is always someone above. Someone richer, more powerful, with a nicer car, greater influence, bigger house, higher status, or more connections. On the fringe everyone is more or less equal in merit, so everyone is at the top, and everyone is at the bottom. It’s a heterogeneous crust of unstable utopia on the simmering vat of civilization.

I attained my membership through my disillusionment with the ceaseless struggle for material wealth; through my rejection of civilization’s insatiable, destructive thirst for progress and growth; and through my contempt of commercialism and advertising.

But I’m simultaneously uninspired by the outer class. Incredulous of their claims of utopian futures. Uninterested in blithe recreational drug use. Mocking of their pretentious, arrogated enlightenment through which an underlying benighted-hood bleeds.

My nature created a friction in Byron Bay. I didn’t abide by the culture of renting rooms, hiring surfboards, eating out, and booking tours. Going out on the town is trite to me. Paying for admission is detestable. Only artificial vibes can be purchased. And those nauseate me. I was abjectly opposed to the culture that views the street performers as quaint diversion. I pitied those souls who’s only glimpse of richest poverty begins and ends with a tossing of loose change into an open guitar case. Those souls are blinded to such a life by a culture that whispers to them ‘fear the destitution.’

I wanted to camp in nature as the animal that I am. I wanted to scavenge my subsistence from that very society of excess I abhor. I wanted to oscillate from leisure to passion according to my own schedule. I wanted a freedom from possession that typically immures others in a cycle of work and recovery.

But neither did I ascribe to the free spirits. The exaltation of eastern philosophy, and the pondering of ancient traditions, are contrived. Spiritual musings have no underlying substance. The heedless search for recreational drugs is odious. I wasn’t satisfied with idle minutia.

I wanted more. Sublime moments can be found in drugs, but only in stark contrast to an otherwise sober mentality. If you take them all the time, then that just becomes a new norm.

I wanted to progress in mind and body, not pass the time idly. I wanted to live passionately. I wanted to surf monster waves, and capture a moment’s essence in writing. I wanted to polish each day until it shined with its one most astonishing feature.

Perhaps it’s the condition of the young to be prepossessed by the diversions of culture. At least in Byron Bay, their realm of perception rarely extends beyond their noses. I can share a joint and a laugh with these people, but I’m not a part of them. And when they trash the beautiful dunes that house them, I can grant them no shrift.

Rousing action from them to clean up the bush would be as futile as herding cats on mescalin. So I paid my ‘rent’ in Byron Bay by filling a bin full of trash and taking it out to the road each morning.

The carefree life of Byron Bay eventually begins to grind. Imperceptibly at first. I started feeling the chill of isolation. I failed to meet a group of surfers with whom to share my passion. I failed to find those who shared the awe in which I hold the universe, but not in a mystical, sense. The image of paradise that I once held for Byron Bay was sullied by these failings. By the time I left, I held only disdain for that place.

Life in Byron Bay is a life suspended in amber. It’s a life in purgatory. No progress is made. No destruction is wrought. Days play out like episodes of a sitcom. Characters take the occasional dramatic exit, but they always return. The status quo anchors everyone that calls Byron home.

The most sinister side of Byron Bay is its repetitious grind. Day by similar day you love the Byron taste a little less. By the time you notice how sapped of its charm you are, you’ve absorbed yourself so fully in the routine that escape is difficult. It’s hard to schedule a bus to somewhere when your day is full of the non-events of Byron life. It’s hard to aspire to external goals when you’re focused on Byron’s prizes. Escape is usually accomplished by absolute necessity. And even that fails to spring some people from the bog.

I departed on a hectic Monday morning lacking organization and readiness. The window opened, and I knew I just had to leap through it. Chucking all my stuff in the car of a friend, we hit the road to Brisbane. My eviction turned out to be my salvation.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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