Two Travel Tales

from western Ireland to the south of Turkey

Not the sort of writing I usually post here, but a couple of pieces inspired by experiences while I’ve been traveling this year that touch on issues of anti-racism and colonisation.

1. A story about hanging with some hooligans at a football match in Ireland and a confronting moment of racism that is handled in the best possible way.

2. A somewhat free-form piece describing a beautiful place and the feeling of swimming in water that leads to reflections on history and place.

Sligo

Sunset over the western stand

We had come to be there as a result of a night drinking Guinness at The Cobblestone in Dublin, where we met our Scottish football hooligan chaperones – from Glasgow, but not fans of either of ‘the Old Firm’ teams, instead choosing to follow the middling fortunes of Motherwell FC. We were invited to join them in making the trip from Dublin to Sligo in the west of Ireland for the match the next day. Motherwell were due to play Sligo Rovers in a game to qualify for a low-level Europe-wide competition – a big moment for both teams and their fanbases.

Sligo is the prettiest of towns, straddling the Garavogue River as it gently eases through the town centre, underneath the arches of picturesque stone footbridges and out into Sligo Bay. Standing sentinel on one side of the bay is the magnificent, imposing bulk of Benulbin – a seemingly perfectly flat, table-top of a mountain. On these summer evenings it is bathed in a golden glow that seems to signal some kind of mythical importance that remains beyond my grasp. Benbulbin also stands proudly distant, yet unmissably prominent as a backdrop for Sligo Rovers homeground, surely making it one of the most spectacular football stadiums in the world (I was unfortunately on the wrong side of the ground to capture a perfect pic with Benulbin behind the stadium).

We arrived in town not really expecting to attend the match, probably just thinking to watch it in a pub. Our hooligan friends had seemingly flaked on us and the promise to share their ticket allocation. Meanwhile, the entire town of Sligo wanted to be there. It was clearly already sold out. Yet we wandered up to the stadium and with kick-off imminent and most of the crowd already in, we noticed an old Irish fella opening a gate to let a family of Motherwell fans in. We sidled over to see what opportunity existed. Shocked by my friend’s broad accent and how far we must have travelled to be there he, of course, let us in too. And when security stopped the whole group about 50m past that gate, this friendly, ordinary looking man walked on over, pulled whatever mystery rank he had and ushered us in.

First half action

Let’s fast-forward the first half now. We were in the section with Motherwell fans but stood to one side and right up against the advertising hoardings that outline the field. We mostly basked in this unexpected setting as a very ordinary game of football played out before us, with Motherwell playing especially terribly – down one-nil at the half.

The incident happened in the second half. Our hooligan friends spotted us during half-time and brought us into the midst of the Motherwell stand. It was a rowdy environment, but not all that threatening. I was pretty sus about a particular set of older guys wearing matching t-shirts that displayed the name of their hooligan firm: Sunday Service or ‘S.S.’ for short. Hhmmm.

An extremely minimal amount of research earlier in the day suggested some Motherwell hooligans as having a far-right bent, certainly back in the 80s and 90s, with remnants of that potentially still existing as recently as 10 or so years ago. While I was one of the only people of colour in that stand, I hadn’t felt like I had been paid any undue attention and, in any case, felt protected by the set of hools we’d been hanging with who seemed at least solidly not racist and maybe, hopefully, actively anti-racist.

Motherwell continued to play terribly and the fans turned on their team. Singing ‘sacked in the morning/ You’ll be sacked in the morning’ at the manager seemed pretty funny to be honest, but some of the vitriol targeted at individual players started to feel harsh and ugly. To be clear, all of this stayed in the realm of how terrible these players were at their chosen sport, how they had no pride, how they were wasting the fans’ time and shouldn’t be in the team. It was ugly but didn’t seem to cross certain lines… Until the one time that it did.

Benulbin seen from across the practice field

It was a short, round and pot-bellied older man with glasses on his square face and closely shorn greying stubble on his head – the exact version of what you’d expect an older hooligan to look like. As Motherwell proceeded to give away possession yet again, he aimed a comment at the one black player on the team, spitting out the ‘N’ word maliciously. He did not scream it – I suspect he knew he was testing a limit – but it was plainly audible.

In our discussions after, my friend and me both recollected being able to turn to our right and easily identify the source of the comment a few meters away. We both also noted our choice to do nothing. As outsiders in this unfamiliar space, with internal allegiances we had no understanding of, there was no real question that we could intervene. If what happened next hadn’t occurred, I might have walked away to a different part of the ground, but I wouldn’t have said a thing.

In any case, after a moment for the cadence of the word to register and the meaning of it to sink in, one younger guy – late teens or maybe just in his 20s – turned around from his spot right up against the advertising hoardings and unleashed. The verbal barrage was unceasing. I can’t remember too many specific words or phrases, but it certainly included calling out the older guy as a racist, labeling him a disgrace and telling him that he had to leave the area. Any time there was a pause to take a breath and it seemed like the tirade may have ended, it would start up again, unwilling to let the racist have any relief.

They had kept their distance from each other – a good few meters – but I know I was worried that the older guy might have friends in the crowd. I even wondered if he had by now been suitably chastened and whether our legend should consider letting up for his own safety. Well, he didn’t – he wasn’t going to let the racist settle back into comfortably watching the game. It became increasingly clear that he (the racist) would have to make a choice to leave the area or take some action to prevent being ongoingly humiliated. He chose the latter option, closed the gap between them and dropped a headbutt squarely into the young guy’s nose. Oh shit.

Our guy (the good one) stumbled back a bit, but it was barely a second, and then he popped up – bloodied nose and all – swinging. He connected too and the racist fell back and hit the ground, his glasses sent flying. As someone who has had glasses fall numerous times in skirmishes in crowded space, I know they are most likely going to end up trod on and broken – here’s hoping. The crowd converged and – still unsure about where the majority allegiance lay – I was contemplating how I might have to get involved in a useful way. The contemplating instead of instinctively doing probably tells you how useful a fighter I am.

Thankfully, when they converged it was onto the bad guy, and now a lot more folk got in on calling him a disgrace and, as the police hustled over, they pointed him out and he was made to leave. I’m not going to deliberate in this piece around the implications of pointing out a racist to the police – it is simply what happened.

More interesting was our hero’s actions as he tried to settled back into watching the game. He would watch for a bit, but then turn to the crowd behind him and admonish all of them for not taking action as soon as the racist made himself known. And once again, he did not let it go. I’d say at this point he was fairly hyped up and visibly upset – no surprise as the adrenalin would still have been flowing from being headbutted and having to defend himself, not to mention the burn of righteous indignation.

I most often use that term, ‘righteous indignation’, in its negative sense – related to a holier-than-thou, haranguing moralism – but it can have powerful, affirmative implications too and this moment seems like the right one to refer to that. For our guy here, it would exist with the firm sense that he put himself on the line to stand up against something that needed standing up to. And that he copped a bloody nose in doing it. To be honest, I was all for this berating of the crowd, even as (or, especially because?) some of them grew uncomfortable with it. It stuck a pin in the cocoon of white comfort that is so often restored as quickly as possible after an uncomfortable encounter with race/ racism. Not only had he provided a real example of standing up to racism, he then made sure everyone had to think about what their actions should be in future.

Çıralı

The mountains meet the sea

The Beydağları Mountains run parallel to the coast in the Lycian region of Turkey, south of Antalya. They wrap up against the Mediterranean, all sheer, bare limestone and serpentine rock-faces intermingling with sparse pine forest. Shifting appearance in all their immensity – depending on the light of the day – between foreboding and impenetrable to that of a welcoming, somewhat wrinkled and weather-worn, elder. They tumble down into the sea from their altitude swiftly, not gradually.

Nestled between these places where the mountains meet the sea are a series of coves and beaches, including the stunning, pebbly stretch of Çıralı beach. Apart from its obvious natural beauty, Çıralı beach holds another secret – the two millenia old remnants of the ancient Lycean city of Olympos. There are signs of it if you look closely at the cliffs on its southern end, but the vast maze of ruins mostly lie just behind the beach, built on either side of a river and hidden in the sparkling, dappled light of a pine forest. There are no fences or preclusions here (apart from a minimal entry fee), tourists like us are free to clamber over the crumbled, and somewhat rebuilt, stone buildings as we desire. And take the necessary selfies.

Back at the beach, I swim in the salty waters of the Mediterranean, perfectly turquoise and clear. Still too, with only the softest ripples and pulls. Joyfully floating. Floating here is easy compared to the open ocean beaches of so-called Australia. The higher salt concentration means buoyancy is increased, less energy needs expending as you laze into its embrace. The water is often the best place to view the geography of a coastline. How the land is like a wave, building into a crescendo before it relinquishes itself.

One small part of the ruins of Olympos

I’ve become more of a water person than I ever expected to be when I was a suburban teenager in Sydney who hated beach ‘culture’. There’s a joy and openness that comes over me when I’m out there, alongside a calm, perspective about the lands that hold me. This occurs back in the sea at dawn on the morning after exploring Olympos, as I feel a sense of wonder – not only because of a spectacular sunrise – but at being in this same place that thousands of years ago people were also experiencing joy as they went about their ordinary, but so different, lives.

It takes me back to a similar moment six summers ago when I started visiting Little Bay regularly with a group of friends in Sydney – the start of me becoming enamoured with being in water again. One afternoon swimming there I had a feeling of awe thinking about the history of that spot, the millenia of interrelations that the Gadigal people had with it. How all the history and knowledge of those relations to place meaningfully resonate into the present day despite colonisation.

At the same time, I felt a particular disgust at how colonisers had deemed it worthwhile to clear the cliff tops, turn on the sprinklers and build a fucking golf course.

What I want to convey, more than anything else here, is that it is in so-called Australia over the last five years or so that an understanding of history as present has rendered itself most clearly to me. In saying it is present, I’m not talking about the destructive elements, like how colonisation is ongoing and oppressive structures persist. These things are true but I’m reaching for something else. I’m searching for where history’s presence over what might happen now can have generative connotations. I’m thinking of the time I spent on Djab Wurrung country, to the west of Naarm, as part of the struggle against a highway expansion through sacred land and how Traditional Owners’ perspective and knowledge of place fused a struggle to protect that land.

I recognise that referencing knowledge systems that stem from First Nations’ connection to country against westernised notions of history is a little clumsy, not a perfect fit. But instead of fetishising or exoticising this knowledge in such a way that keeps it separate, I’m only suggesting how some small learnings have brought me – someone always interested in histories – into a more complete understanding of how what passed before is also now.

For example, monuments need not only be thought of as imposing, and absolutely lifeless, statues memorialising dead things. They might instead be alive and ever-changing, sacred birthing trees. Of before and now.

I can’t deny that in the times that I’ve traversed Europe, the idea of its ‘history’ would often pull me in – so often represented in the static form of museums and monuments. Sure there’s things to be learned, but it tends to be linear and you have to push your enquiring mind to consider what existed in the shadows and peripheries of the ‘great men’ and grand cathedrals.

Instead of this, there is something more important in the ways in which history is inscribed in place and the common relations between people and place that mean it must be ongoing and is always interactive. This is, of course, true in Europe too. However, despite the many complexities in how it might play out related to my position as a settler and my conceptions of liberation, it has been on Aboriginal land that this understanding most seems to resonate.

Sunrise over the Mediterranean

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