People will sometimes say to me “Does anyone still use travel agents?”, to which I then reply, smiling – iPhone on table, drinking my jar of organic rooftop cider and waiting for the beardy man to deliver my delicious pulled pork roll from behind the graffitied façade of the café kitchen – “Well I’m sitting here fully clothed, aren’t I?”
We are all well aware that we’re a fair chunk into the 21st century. That people buy clothes online, order wine online, listen to music online, watch YouTube videos online and date online. But do they still zip out at lunchtime and buy a shiny new top to wear that evening? Grab a bottle of Pinot on their way home and put a Pixies record on whilst they’re getting ready? Head to a comedy gig at their local and maybe lightheadedly kiss somebody in the bar that night?
So why should a booming industry such as travel, and the experts that sell it, be seen to be confined behind a glass screen? People still want to purchase goods and services face to face, and when those goods and services are often the third most expensive thing you’ll invest in throughout your life (after your house and car) it’s justifiable to choose someone to take care of it for you and share in the experience.
This brings me to my lovely place of work. A fun and colourful adventure travel agency located on Melbourne’s famous and bustling Chapel Street. The scungy end. Not the good end. Let’s get that straight.
Chapel Street embodies diversity. There are footballers, comedians, actors, bucks parties, high end fashion, not for profit cafés, buskers, rehab centres, substance users and council flats. Just recently our manager went to the local printing shop to print some posters he needed for a presentation in which he was required to encapsulate our clientele demographic. He had a picture of a beautiful blond woman adorned with pearls, a picture of a deranged looking man wearing an aviator head piece sporting ‘east-west’ eyes, and a picture of Dom & Adrian of Bondi Hipsters fame. The tattooed staff member studied each photo and replied, “Interesting. I see exactly what you’re doing here mate. This is Chapel Street alright”
A typical day at work on Chapel Street is a mixture of, say, helping stranded clients from the latest civil unrest in Cairo, hoping that your ‘first time overseas’ client will be OK when she steps off her plane in Quito, explaining that there are no tigers in Africa or Polar bears in Antarctica and most importantly… providing directions to backpackers. “St Kilda you say? Just jump on the next tram and you’re there. And put a jacket on…It’s August, you fools!!”
Just this week we had a visa calamity. The Iranian consulate in Canberra, austere and unyielding like most diplomatic sectors, was tardy in the processing of our clients’ visas. They were due to depart soon and likely to be sans passport on their proposed day of travel, hence action had to be taken. We called a colleague in Canberra who made her way to a two dollar shop, purchased a head scarf, donned said headscarf and marched right into the Iranian consulate herself. It was sorted then and there. Albeit by a friendly Aussie named ‘Jim’.
I had to smile the day a duo of perfectly primped, interstate ‘Wag’ types tottered into the store, flashing with gold, heels clanking on the wooden floors, clinging to each other and looking slightly lost. They asked where all the ‘good’ Chapel Street shopping was. I felt like replying. “You’re in the right place. You should check out Eurotrash just a couple of shops down from here. There’s Diamonds in there”. This is true. The bumptious, flame haired owner has a devoted follower in the form of an ever present tawny coloured whippet named Diamond.
Another event of note was the time a frenzied man stopped near our door, draped in an old blanket, growling incomprehensibly, whilst flailing what appeared to be a long, sharp, shiny object in his hand. It was only after we had avoided eye contact at all costs, hurriedly jumped up to close and lock the door and called the police, that we were notified that they had found him down an alleyway a short time after. Still clutching his ruler.
Just for the record, when you walk into a quiet travel agency and the consultants appear to be staring blankly at their screens do not be mistaken. This is not a sign of boredom or lack of vocation. Travel agents are not idle folk. We could well be poring over a sixteen sector, five continent, round the world, mixed class Itinerary. Researching the topography in Iceland (Green) and in Greenland (Icey). Or studying Google maps of Central Asia thinking “Oh, so that’s where Tajikistan is! Next to Kyrgyzstan. Righto”.
Or you may even find us shaking our heads in bemusement at the latest email we received from an oh so Gen-Y passenger travelling in Morocco. She’s emailed us a screen shot of her ‘Find My Phone App’ which shows her ‘lost’ iPhone located somewhere on Avenue Prince Moulay Abdellah in Marrakech and she’s asked us to help get it back from those who took it. From our desk. Here. On Chapel Street. Melbourne. Australia…
It’s impossible not to find ourselves curiously chattering about the local characters who frequent the area day in and day out. Some own bars, some make our lattes, some sleep on benches, some congregate near the Town Hall, some have pets, some shout at the air, some do laps and acquire items of interest.
Just like ‘Tony’ who is by far the most fascinating of them all. He has been sporting an old, matted wig for the best part of 18 months, with his own wiry brown/grey hair growing out from underneath. Sometimes he has a shopping bag, sometimes a can of booze, he even boasted a guitar there for a couple of weeks.
Every day we hear him approaching our always open door with the slow, heavy scuff of his procured cowboy boots. He will slowly come to a standstill, large belly protruding, sway for a second, bend down to pick up a smoke butt from the pavement and proceed to light it, unfocused, still swaying, before slowly resuming his journey along the street.
This provides us with a multitude of unanswered questions. “How old is he?”, “Where does he go at night?”, and “Do you think he takes off that wig!?”
On our trip back from our morning coffee run we will ponder… “Is the tattooed guy the owner? Or just ‘Head-Barista?”, “Do you think the cute one is single?”, “I wonder what his name is? Lets just call him Liam until we know.”, and “Where did the shaggy haired waiter go? I haven’t seen him for a while…”
We then quaff our delicious Melbourne ‘Joe’ and coalesce back into our places. Small cogs on the ever turning wheel that is Chapel Street by day. Providing directions, giving geography lessons and finding electronic devices in Africa. Until we get distracted by the fellow walking past with his pet green parrot squawking from its position on his shoulder…