Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Passage to Sunshine

It has to be admitted - international travel gets all the sexy press. When it comes to leaving home, it seems, 'more distant' = 'more exotic'.

It's not strictly true, of course; there are many highly exotic and sensually vibrant countries located between myself and the English-speaking nations of the northern hemisphere. Some of them, like Indonesia, are on Australia's relative doorstep. But there is a tendency toward assuming that domestic is duller.

But on the weekend just past, I was reminded how you don't always have to travel far to encounter the exotic.

We'd agreed to meet our Sudanese-Australian friends Anas and Inas at a new Sudanese restaurant in Footscray, an inner-city district to the west. For some reason people always think Footscray is further away from the city centre than it actually is, but it only takes a few minutes to get there by train.

As we walked through the streets in the commercial centre there, I was struck by what an stimulating place Footscray is. Traditionally a working class area giving access to industrial jobs, for decades it's also been a thriving hub for refugees and other migrants, a place for newcomers to get their bearings and start out with a bit of support from earlier arrivals.

The result has been a startling diverse area; we walked past a dazzling array of shops selling goods from other countries. A street of Vietnamese restaurants and other businesses gave way to a street of African cafes and shops, a magnet for the many African migrants Australia has accepted since the 1990s.

The restaurant, El Khartoum Centre (145 Nicholson St) looked just like any eatery we'd been to when we lived in the Middle East, with fairly basic decor featuring simple furniture with the tables covered in plastic sheeting.

We ordered Sudanese-style coffee from the waiter, talked with him a bit about Cairo, where it turned out we'd both lived, and waited for our friends. The food, ordered from a wall menu of ten or so dishes, proved tasty and intriguing. It had much in common with the Mediterranean cuisine we were familiar with, but also many differences, including a greater use of both chili and peanuts.

After lunch, we checked out the shops, including an jewellery place where the owner sells attractive African-inspired pieces made on the premises. Then I found some of my favourite ajvar (a spicy Croatian vegetable spread) in the Footscray Markets. That's always a good day - it can be hard to locate.

Just standing for a moment in the pedestrian mall, watching people from across the world bustling between the diverse shops, reminded me that you don't always have to cover long distances to feel like you're travelling.

And in honour of that sentiment, here's a video my brother John Richards and I created a few months ago, as a try-out for a TV travel show. Melbourne's most famous suburbs may be Melbourne City (museums, bars, shopping), St Kilda (beaches, live music, dining) and Fitzroy (coffee, retro decor, funky fashion) - but today I'd like to welcome you to Sunshine!