Location: Koh Rong, Cambodia
It’s 9AM on Australia Day and I’m staring into the Marischino-cherry-red grenadine mingling with the sticky, clear vodka and Malibu of my Wet Pussy (it’s a shot). The French girl with the nose ring behind the bar pours herself one, too. I can’t remember what these taste like, but I’m always wary of anything with grenadine in it. A low key rock n roll tune blasts over Island Boys’ bar speakers; I remember hearing it a few times on Triple J, but it wasn’t really my vibe. It’s okay though, we’re only an hour into the Hottest 100, the annual voting competition and countdown for the most popular songs of the year in Australia. More than two million votes were submitted for 2014 - and I’m hoping that Aussies everywhere picked my favorite songs.
The cheery, bearded owner of Island Boys is Australian and he’s stapling yellow and green streamers on any available surfaces: poles, doorways, the stairwell, the ceiling. Balloons bounce past the legs of bar stools and down the hall toward the dorms. The French girl has lined up five shots, now. She and I glance at my three Aussie companions, who aren’t paying attention. It’s their third shot of the day. They sip Klang (a cheap Cambodian beer) casually and joke about the music, unconcerned of the unreasonable hour and the dangerously strong shot they’re about to consume. One finally notices my gaze and snatches his Wet Pussy off the bar.
“AUSTRALIA DAY!” He cries, quite warlike, and we all chime in. The shot goes down slimy and sweet. Heat boils in my belly and spreads through my chest, my limbs, and finally rests warm and fuzzy in my head. Immediately the French girl grabs the vodka and begins to pour another round.
It’s 11AM on Australia Day and the bar is full; people are milling about, Klang in one hand, cigarette in the other. Someone’s rolled a tulip joint and pinned it up on the map on the wall over Australia. I’m shaking all the orange powder to the bottom of my packet of Extra Joss energy shot. I rip the shiny, silver plastic at the “Tear Here” edge, and wedge my fingers into the opening, making it a big “O”. The Aussie guy in the floppy felt hipster hat and swim trunks beside me follows my movements. I just met him, but it’s Australia Day so we’re best friends.
“What’s this?” He asks me, struggling with the silver edge of his Extra Joss.
“It’s like a Red Bull, but in powder form. I’m pretty sure it’s illegal everywhere but Cambodia.”
He laughs. “Do I swallow this first, then take the shot?”
I hold my Extra Joss in the air, preparing myself for the toast and the head rush that’s about to come. “Just pour the powder into your mouth, take the shot, and swizzle it around! Then swall-“
“AUSTRALIA DAY!” It’s too late to explain, we’re already taking the shot. The powder fizzes in my mouth and the aftertaste is more of an acidic burn than a flavor. When I look out of Island Boys toward the beachfront I see a sea of lobster-red Aussie backs. You’d think that after all these years Down Under their bodies would become accustomed to the sun, but instead they’ve just perfected the singlet sunburn.
It’s 12PM on Australia Day and the whole bar is dancing; bartenders, onlookers, the owner, everyone. In the chaos people have claimed dance spots on all the tabletops and even the rickety wooden staircase up to the second floor dorms. Everyone’s shouting, “I voted for this!” and “I thought it would be higher on the list!” but I’m not even sure how far we are into the Hottest 100. You can’t hear the radio announcers over the yelling.
Then the deep, eery base of Zhu’s “Faded” begins to trickle out of the speakers and I’m screaming at the top of my lungs, “I’ve been waiting for this song all day!” I scramble up on a table top, joining my comrades for a dance to celebrate what might just be my new favorite holiday.
It’s 2PM on Australia Day and all the bartenders are holding aerosol cans, the metal glinting under the sun. Before I can investigate further what they are, I’m distracted by hush that flows through the bar, silencing the laughter and talk. The only sound is the Triple J DJ’s voice over the radio and a quiet, expectant mutter of suspense as he announces the number one song for 2014. Silence, then the rhythmic hum of Chet Faker’s “Talk is Cheap” buzzes from the speakers and everyone’s shouting again, people are jumping, and the bartenders are spraying green goopy silly string into the air. It’s all over. I can feel it in my hair, tangling into the fine strands. My tabletop is a platform of bare feet, bouncing. I dance and sing along, my voice lost among many calling out, “I wanna make you mooove with confidence/I wanna be with youuuuu alooone…”
It’s 5PM on Australia Day and as I dive in, the cool ocean water clears my head, refreshing me from the inside out. When I resurface, I can hear dance beats slamming out of Island Boy’s speakers down the beach. Casual international beach goers, unaware of the holiday, have set up even further down the coast than usual to escape the noise. Someone tries to pass me a frisbee and I shake my head. It’s just me and the sea and my buzz right now.
It’s 9PM on Australia Day and Island Boys is nearly empty. There are a few hammered bar staff blasting Rage Against The Machine so loudly the floor shakes with the drums. One worker holds out the staple gun, swinging it wildly around the room. He’s been writing notes on little pads and stapling them to himself and others. One of the bartenders at Vagabonds is more than willing to participate - he already has stapled notes all over his chest, arms, shoulders, back, and even one shot dangerously into the back of his neck. He keeps forgetting about them and asking for more. I cringe. My friend and I look at each other, shake our heads. It’s time to go to sleep.