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Modesty And The Camera In Australia

It’s been a boring day and an eventful evening.

The Linuxworld trade show was only marginally busier today than yesterday. It didn’t have the thrill of doing a keynote speech. To top it off, the free wireless Internet we enjoyed yesterday was unavailable more of the day. Thus it was a long, boring day.

After the show, Gehan, Clinton and I walked over to a Darling Harbour pub and enjoyed a beer out on the pier. After hearing Gehan’s fascinating stories from his time in the Middle East, we parted ways. I hopped onto the tram for a ride back to the hotel.

I relaxed at the hotel until 8, at which time I was feeling pretty hungry. I wasn’t out for fancy food, but I wanted some scenery. I thought I’d head to The Rocks for the scenery and if there happened to be a fish-and-chips place I’d take care of the food part, too.

I hopped a train and was soon at The Rocks. Tempting as the sight of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House was, I kept my lens cap on and headed towards the restaurants and pubs.

I followed a couple into a bistro called Claude’s Kitchen, right inside the Observer Hotel. The huge plate of fish and chips I got for $16 AUD may well have been the best meal I’ve had in Australia. I had to order my dinner drink at the bar, so I walked up the mostly-empty bar and picked up a Killarney’s on draft. It instantly became the best beer I’ve had in Australia.

After I devoured my dinner, I heard music coming from the bar area. Wandering back I heard a guitarist playing in the corner. A crowd of voices began to sing along with whatever forgettable pop song he was playing. I turned the corner to see the bar now filled wall to wall with college-age students wearing lab coats scribbled with risque grafitti.

“Aha,” I thought. “These are the kids I saw wandering around outside when I walked in.” The flock had apparently chosen the bar I was in to roost.

“Uh, what’s the occasion?” I asked a nearby girl.

“It’s a university pub crawl,” she answered as she turned back to her friends.

I considered this a for a moment. I had pictures to take, so I thought of working my way through to the door. Then I got caught up in the revelre in the bar and settled onto a nearby bar stool.

A man was sitting across the barrel table obviously drunk out of his mind. He smiled crookedly and leaned over to my ear.

“Habarasheuhuni Amhahdigehhtal,” he slurred above the din.

I blinked. “Uh sorry, mate. Can you say that again?”

With a look of intent on his face, he slurred his words once again. The guy was falling-down drunk. After repeated attempts to decipher him, I figured out he was asking if my camera was digital. I told him yes, at which point he began to pose for a picture. Humoring the drunken fool, I snapped a picture.

He leaned over again. More slurring gibberish. The word hammered doesn’t do him justice. I shook my head until he began to gesture.

Ah! He wants a copy of the picture!

“Do you have an email address?” I shouted to him. A blitzed, blank look was the reply.

Sorry, dude. No picture for you.

I took a few more pictures of the crowd before deciding to head over to the Sydney landmarks on the water. Standing in my way was a hundred college students crowding around the bar. I was five feet from the door with no chance of getting there. I turned around and found my way out a side door.

As the crowd milled around the front of the bar, I again pulled out my camera and took a shot of the festive crowd. As I snapped the picture, I heard a voice beside me.

“Why are you taking pictures?” came the not-exactly-friendly voice. Had I known what was to follow I would’ve answered “I’m shooting pictures for Girls Gone Wild In Full-Length Lab Coats!” Alas, I did not.

“Because you just don’t see this kind of thing in the States,” I answered, looking up. Next to me were too mall-security types. One had a walkie-talkie microphone on his shoulder. I looked for badges but didn’t see any.

“Why,” I asked, sizing up the situation. “Is there something wrong?”

“Are you with them?”

“Uh, no. I’m an American tourist,” I answered. “I just wanted to capture this on film.”

“You can’t take pictures here,” one of them motioned. “Its to protect their privacy.”

I considered the privacy of a crowd of rowdy people on a public street, but gamely played along.

Then the other one leaned in. “There are females over there,” he said. I almost expected him to do the Monty Python “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” bit.

Oh my god!! He was right! There really were females over there, outnumberd by guys two-to-one in the crowd thirty feet away from me. If you squinted really hard, you could even tell!

This was ridiculous. Time to wind it up.

I feigned surrender. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know there some kind of law against taking pictures.”

“You can’t take pictures of the people,” the other one said. “But since you’re a tourist its probably okay.”

Whew. Nothing more embarassing than getting busted for a phony infraction by a pair of rent-a-cops.

They began to move on. “If a copper sees you,” said one, “he might question you. You can take pictures of the buildings, though.”

I walked away, too, my mind buzzing with the irony of it all. Here is a country that shows American movies practially uncut on network television – stuff that America doesn’t show on TV. Here’s a city with adult bookstores seemingly on every block. Nearby are beaches where women frequently sunbathe topless. If that wasn’t enough, prostitution is legal here! There are brothels right out in the open!

In spite of all the hedonism, I take one picture on a public street of college students dressed like clowns and whooping it up, and I get hassled for it? Doesn’t it follow that if you act rowdy and dress in costumes with racy writing, you’re pretty much trying to attract attention?

Just when I thought I was starting to understand this country it throws me a curve ball. Unbelievable.

I made it to the landmarks. I even took some great pictures. But I did so in a huff. Australia has a lot of things going for it, but I wouldn’t trade America’s freedom of the press for anything! Australia’s approach to modesty is schizophrenic, indeed. It looks like they’ve got some issues to work out.