The one where I met up with local explorers as they plan the day for the Haldon Street Festival

If I’m being completely honest, my ideal day would be spent a’wanderin’.  Don’t know where, don’t know how, just walking around, driving around, shootin’ the breeze, shootin’ the …

Apologies.  I’m in the middle of a book that was written in Alabama in the 60s and I have caught myself taking on the characters’ lingo.

But back to my a’wanderin’, because that I would do in the here and now.  It’s why I love travelling, be it part of international travel or local travel, courtesy of my car and my e-tag.  And I was so pleased to discover that I was not alone.  I recently met up with Lesley Unsworth and Gunjan Sen, two women who are involved with Taste Food Tours, Lesley as the Manager and Gunjan as one of their tour guides.  I caught up with them one cold Wednesday evening in Lakemba as they prepared for today’s Haldon Street Festival.

A Word About Lakemba

When I got home that night and told my husband I had been in Lakemba with two strangers having dinner, his reaction was, “Ohh OK.  Sounds fun”.  There are many people who don’t share that view though, so I’m lucky – my husband is American, and therefore has no idea of the bad rap Lakemba, and much of Southwestern Sydney, has gotten in the media in the last couple of years.  As someone who grew up in the “where-is-that?” suburb of Harris Park and then the concrete burning heat of Quakers Hill (it’s in Blacktown, my parents live very close to Parklea Markets), I know what it’s like to feel misrepresented in the media.  Lakemba residents, and residents in South-West and Western Sydney, aren’t always held in the greatest light … when in reality it’s really like this (some of the time, below is festival season):

Image courtesy of Haldon Street Festival promoters

Image courtesy of Haldon Street Festival promoters

OK, the above image is not an everyday occurrence, but it’s a way of showing the area in a light that isn’t always shown on TV or in the mainstream media.

Lesley mentions that she’s never had a problem with Lakemba or its residents, and her ease with the neighbourhood shows.  I met her near Lakemba station ready for a little walky-walk through the streets, as she and Gunjan talked to local businesses who would be involved in the festival.  The business owners they talked to were enthusiastic about their connnection to the Taste Food Tour being run during the festival, and there was a pride that Lesley and Gunjan took in being associated with local businesses.

It’s why local festivals like Haldon Street Festival is so important for Sydney, as we learn to get outside the world we live in and quit being so suburb-snobby, racist, discriminatory etc.

The Diversity of the City

“We take great pride in this annual opportunity to showcase the diversity in our City with the festival attracting crowds of over 30,000 people, all eager to experience a taste of the multiculturalism that is indicative of our great City,” Mayor Brian Robson said, when talking about the Haldon Street Festival.

Multiculturalism.  Is there any other phrase more loaded than that at the moment.  It seems the world is, now more than ever, opening up in terms of accessibility with transport and travel, but we’re still quick to judge, glance at each other sideways and grow suspicious of the differences between us rather than the things that make us similar.  We don’t take the time to learn about each other, to understand that hey, maybe not being all the same is a good thing?  Maybe differences in ages, cultures, gender etc. might allow us a broader understanding of the human experience?

What to Except when you think you know what you’re Expecting

That night, Lesley and Gunjan did the walk around the main areas of Lakemba station, Haldon Street being one of them, and what I saw around me wasn’t anything they show on TV, of course.  Businesses were open and people were meeting up for a coffee, or dinner, or buying groceries for their families.  They were picking up friends and family from the train that had departed the city as people were coming home from work.  They were, you know, NOT DOING ANYTHING DIFFERENT that you wouldn’t see in other suburbs all over Sydney, all over Australia, all over the world.

It was standard, really, except it wasn’t wrapped up in a news headline that was created to strike fear into the hearts of those who knew no better, or perhaps chose to live in a bubble.  There is no denying Lakemba’s very Arabic population in the shops we went into and the people we met (an old friend of mine who grew up in Fairfield once jokingly referred to the suburb as “Lebkemba” one day as we went to pick up his friend for lunch in a Lebanese chicken shop for BBQ chicken and garlic sauce), but Lakemba is also home to Asians, Indians, Caucasians.  Gunjan was organising her tour for the festival, which would be based on Bengali food and the Bengali community in Lakemba.  She spoke fluently in Bengali to her clients, the business-owners whose shops were still open even though it was dinner time and they should’ve been home with their families.  Lesley and I hung back (me even more so) whilst Gunjan explained how the tour would run, how many people to expect.  Lesley handed out her card to the business owners, and one man gave us a packet of nuts to tide us over and we walked.

Inside one of the stores which will be used as a stop during the Bengali Food Tour

Inside one of the stores which will be used as a stop during the Bengali Food Tour

We wandered down another street and into a clothing store, where the shopkeeper, a shy, smiling woman who didn’t want me to take her photo (“No no, it’s OK”, she told me, so I laughed to make her feel less shy and me less like a moron).  Lesley and her chatted (Gunjan had wandered outside to meet a friend, a fellow tour guide, who had taken her dog for a walk past the store), and we found out that right around Eid, her store goes gangbusters as people flock to get a new outfit in celebration.  I am amazed and “lifted” (a term I got from comedienne Felicity Ward) that a store like this exists in Sydney, a mere half hour or so train ride away from the CBD.  It was filled with brightly coloured clothing, gold-dusted jewellery and enough room to not swing a cat.  For the Muslim women of Lakemba, this store would come as no surprise.  For someone doing a walking tour or an outsider visiting the suburb for the festival, the store represented an area of the culture they could access.  Clothing tells you a lot about a person, and this store was no exception.

Brightly coloured clothing of the variety worn for realsies in Lakemba but for "Earth Mother" purposes in Tree of Life

Brightly coloured clothing of the variety worn for realsies in Lakemba but for “Earth Mother” purposes in Tree of Life

Adornments in a Lakemba clothing store

Adornments in a Lakemba clothing store

Every Community has a Voice

… and every community has an identity.  I’m really proud that I live in such a diverse city, and I wish other people would realise how great it is to have access – right here, a train ride away – to a community and to cultures that aren’t a plane ticket away.  And I’m also really glad there are people like Lesley and Gunjan who take the time to develop businesses and initiatives to help other people step outside their bubbles and see a side of Sydney they probably never thought they’d see.

So I’ll see you at the Haldon Street Festival, then?


All images are my own unless otherwise stated.  Featured image courtesy of Haldon Street Festival organisers. 

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